'Arms' isn't short on talent, nor on sound Theater review: A rousing score, fluid dance numbers and fine performances help 'Your Arms Too Short To Box with God' rise above the irritating sound system.

November 01, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The expression "singing to wake the dead" applies almost literally to the production of "Your Arms Too Short to Box with God" at the Lyric Opera House.

That's because 1) this gospel revue depicts the resurrection, as related in the Gospel of Matthew, and, 2) the show is amplified so loudly, it could raise the dead at area cemeteries as well.

But singing is only part of this still-rousing 20-year-old show, conceived and directed by Vinnette Carroll. Dance plays an equally important role and, as choreographed by the late Talley Beatty and re-created and augmented by Phaze Farrington, the dancing provides some of the most stirring moments.

The first of these comes early on when Jesus -- danced with commanding presence by Derrick Minter -- heals the sick. One by one, the palsied and lame touch Jesus' staff and then dance away with grace. In the end, those he has healed surround Jesus like petals on a flower.

Later, after the crucifixion, taunting unbelievers ask Jesus for a sign. A percussive storm erupts, represented by frantic dancers waving black scarves. The dance ends with them drowning under an undulating sea of black cloth.

The music, composed variously by Alex Bradford, H. B. Barnum, Micki Grant and the Rev. Melvin Dawson, ranges from gospel to pop numbers reminiscent of "Jesus Christ Superstar" or "Godspell" (also based on Matthew).

Unfortunately, the amplification makes many of the lyrics sound as if they're written in tongues, particularly as sung by Mr. Dawson, who doubles as choral director.

The sound system doesn't do Stephanie Mills any favors, either, but it cannot obscure the pizazz of the show's star, who serves as a sort of narrator and also portrays Pilate's wife. The petite Mills, who created the role of Dorothy in "The Wiz," seems to be the human embodiment of that show's tornado. Her energy, combined with her ability to sustain a note and to escalate the intensity of a repeated phrase, brought the opening night audience to its feet. (Mills also faces impressive competition from newcomer Timetta Phillips).

The cast features several performers with area connections. Native Baltimorean Samuel G. LeSane, an Alvin Ailey dancer, conveys anguished regret as Judas.

Gregory Tapscott, a former Maryland disc jockey, is one of four closed-minded elders, majestically decked out in designer William Schroder's African-inspired robes. And the chorus includes Jason Timothy, an alum of the Baltimore School for the Arts.

The show has been updated with a few extraneous references to e-mail, talk shows, cellular phones, etc. But the real mood breaker is a comic second act fight over Jesus' robe, in which three men argue about whether it was designed by St. Laurent, Gucci or J. C. Penney.

Most of the second act, in fact, lacks the flow of the first half. And overall, it remains odd to hear words like "blessed are the meek" amplified higher than the heavens. But even though this production isn't always in fighting trim, it nonetheless proves that after two decades, "Your Arms Too Short to Box with God" can still hold its own.

'Your Arms Too Short To Box with God'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

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

Tickets: $19-$29.50

Call: (410) 494-2712

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