Songs make up for less-than-subtle plot

November 19, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Whatever strengths "Madame Lily" may have -- strong voices, spirited dancing and catchy songs -- one that it definitely lacks is subtlety.

Currently at the Lyric Opera House as part of a national tour, this new musical stars Gladys Knight as the madam of a New Orleans brothel. She is, however, a madam with a heart of gold, and Ron Milner's script pits her against an evil pimp named Alonzo (Harrison White).

In case the good-madam-bad-pimp storyline isn't overt enough, Alonzo makes his entrance in a suit as red as hellfire; he is referred to by almost everyone -- himself included -- as either the devil or Lucifer; and at one point he even shoves a minister!

Milner, whose playwrighting credits include "Don't Get God Started" and "Checkmates," goes in for updated morality plays, and in "Madame Lily" he doesn't leave much middle ground between heaven and hell.

Fortunately, many of the songs -- some of which were written by Knight herself -- come closer to the former. It's a treat to hear Knight's duet, "Two Old Friends," sung with amply proportioned David Peaston, whose tenor voice is of equally ample proportions. (Their singing almost makes it possible to overlook such ridiculous lyrics as: "I remember when you had no breasts, but they grew somehow.") Knight is also vocally well-matched with her other co-star, Dorian Harewood; their duet, "Our Love," comes closest to sounding like a pop hit.

For that matter, waiting for the songs is the about the only reason to bear with the plot, which not only suffers from an excess of overtness, but occasionally just doesn't make sense. According to the story, when Madame Lily was a teen-ager she gave birth to a daughter out of wedlock. Now 25 years later, she longs tobe reunited with the girl, who turns out to be a hooker employed by the aforementioned evil Alonzo. For assistance, she turns to two men vying for her affections, a councilman (Peaston) and a cop-turned-preacher (Harewood).

The script makes it more than clear that Lily coddles her girls while Alonzo mistreats his. Nonetheless, given the purportedly high moral tone of the show it seems a little odd that even after Lily finds religion, she still seems to be in the bordello business. And let's not forget that Lily is a character who repeatedly rails against hypocrisy. Of course, this doesn't seem any more hypocritical than the fact that this church-oriented production is hawking pin-up calendars of "Lily's girls" in the lobby.

While "Madame Lily" is several slick notches above "Don't Get God Started" and most of the other touring shows in this genre, it's far from a worthy vehicle for its talented stars. Early on we're told that "Madame Lily insists on dignity." Knight is making her theatrical debut in this show; too bad she didn't pick something more dignified.

MADAME LILY'

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; 7:30 p.m., Sunday; 3 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday

Where: Lyric Opera House

Tickets: $17.50-$25.50

% Call: (410) 889-3911

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