New `Gospel' has ring of truth to it

Review: The new musical shows the composer and co-author have got potential.

January 16, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

There's a moment late in the second act of The Gospel According to Fishman that's as pure and true as any I've experienced in musical theater.

One by one, the performers walk out from behind shuttered wooden screens as if stepping out of history, out of Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. They look straight at the audience and begin to sing "I Remember":...

And those proper Southern ladies

In their rockers on the porch

While their husbands dress in Klan robes

Burning churches with a torch."

The words seem to rise effortlessly from the melody, and the combination has great emotional force. The song brings home not just the cruelty of segregation, but also how recently it occurred - not in the safe, distant past, but in our lifetimes. Somehow, that makes it worse.

While the rest of the show doesn't always live up to that shining moment, it's ample testament of the potential of composer Richard Ober- acker and co-author Michael Lazar.

The Gospel According to Fishman is set during the civil rights movement. In 1963, Alan Fishman, an up-and-coming young Jewish composer, is writing music for an all-black gospel choir. His budding interracial romance with a young singer is complicated by the growing violence, his worried and disapproving family and his career goals.

Overall, the score outshines the story. According to news reports, the musical's producers are contemplating a Broadway run, and I'm not sure Fishman is ready to make that leap. (It should be noted, however, that I attended a preview; changes still are being made in the production.)

Oberacker is particularly adept at writing songs that reveal character, not just through the lyrics, but also melodically. For instance, the score grows in complexity as Fishman matures.

Early on, when the young composer is struggling to find his voice, Oberacker gives us "My Son, the Writer" - a song that owes a clear debt to Stephen Sondheim (then a hot young composer) with its conversational, comically alternating point of view.

And a pop song that Fishman writes for his girlfriend, Jolene, is as superficial as his affections are at that stage of their relationship. But Oberacker also is capable of the subtlety and structural complexity of "I Remember," and his rousing gospel tunes (in particular "Glory") are both intimate and expansive.

Not every song hits the mark; "This Feels Like Home" is eminently forgettable. But, that's probably true of any musical; even the great Leonard Bernstein composed "I Feel Pretty."

Fishman's biggest problem is that it doesn't seem to know whose story it wants to tell. Instead, it's a collection of subplots, each given as much weight as the next. There's a coming-of-age saga, a love story, a tale of political injustice. And that confusion is especially evident in the musical's ending.

The plot seems to be working up to a big transformation for Alan, but the nature of his revelation is unclear. We are told that Alan learns to listen to his own voice - but not what kind of a voice it is, or what it's telling him. We know that he decides to leave the choir in Alabama and return to New York, but we're never told what he's returning for. Fame and fortune? An appearance on The Tonight Show? Doesn't that seem just a wee bit anticlimactic?

Moreover, not all the characters are fleshed out. Some, whom initially seemed stereotypes (such as Alan's Jewish parents) become satisfyingly three-dimensional as the play progresses. Others are incompletely written; Jolene (Alan's love interest) comes off as a standard ingenue, although the script contains hints that, if developed, might make her character more complex.

And yet, the 22 cast members are so polished and dynamic that they very nearly obscure the musical's flaws. I may never have seen a singer more committed to the words coming out of her mouth than E. Faye Butler, who portrays Nehi Taylor, the star around whom the gospel choir is built. She doesn't seem to be spitting out song lyrics as much as blood and muscle and fragments of bone.

As Fishman, Tally Sessions has a smooth, appealing tenor, and he is as captivating a stage presence as Butler. His voice isn't always strong enough to be heard over the orchestra, but he radiates so much joy it hardly matters. Strong performances also were delivered by Harry Winter and Florence Lacey as Alan's parents, and Susan Lynskey as his sister.

Oberacker and Lazar are ambitious, talented and in their 30s. The Gospel According to Fishman is their first musical. It will be interesting to see what they do next.

Gospel According to Fishman

Where: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Road, Arlington, Va.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m., 7 p.m. Sunday. Through Feb. 24

Tickets: $30

Call: 800-955-5566

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