The theme at Signature Theater last month appeared to be people who love each other but are still capable of exploiting their lover for their own personal benefit. You have the wonderful “Sex with Strangers” which explores the perils of modern day love, lust, publishing and the cyber age and “Elmer Gantry” which explores lust, love, faith and salesmanship in the prohibition era. One was more successful than the other. Not to say this was a bad show, but it is obviously a work in progress. It is not, as I had first thought, a revival of the original Broadway show “Gantry” (which closed on opening night) but a new version that has been bouncing around the regional theaters for several years.
The basis of the musical is Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel of the same name and follows the exploits of a down on his luck salesman of, shall we say ‘loose,’ moral character. He is having little luck selling his wares and finds a much more appealing product to peddle in the beautiful, self determined Evangelist Sister Sharon Falconer and her traveling tent revival troupe. Gantry, taken by the sisters beauty and light that passed through her white dress if you sitting to the left of the pulpit, decides to insert himself into the revival troupe and help them sell God to the masses, for a cut of the gross receipts of course. Our Sister Falconer, knowing you can’t spread the gospel if you can’t get them into the tent, agrees to bring him aboard. Gantry, with seeming free reign, proceeds to rework their acts to be more “commercial” and inserts himself into the service as a repentant sinner who wandered off the path but has found salvation in the oratory of Sister Falconer. Hallelujah! The act works and pretty soon they’re sad little revival tour is the the hot ticket coming to a small town near you. As the tour progresses so does Gantry’s efforts to seduce the seemingly virtuous (yes, I said seemingly) Sister Sharon. She hints pretty early on that she is not all that she seems, she is no less ambitious that Gantry but the nature of her ambition is quite different and in the long run much more dangerous. Gantry’s ambition for money and easy sex are simple compared to Sister Sharon’s ambition for validation and recognition. It’s apparent that Gantry misreads the Sister from the beginning and when he final succeeds in seducing her, or more like when allows him to seduce her, he assumes they are cut from the same cloth and thinks he’s found a soul mate.
I like the concept of the story a lot, it hearkens back to the 80’s when television became a powerful tool to spread the “word” to a much larger audience and the line between providing genuine ministry and using flash and bang to sell God (and make a buck) was distinctly blurred. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” There is also an attempt to relate the depression era story to the current economic climate where the fat cats on Wall Street are “skimming the cream” and the businessmen who offer Sister Sharon her fondest desire, her own church, while they feign piety in a blatant effort to make a profit on the backs of the poor. In a not terribly surprising turn, Gantry, even with his less than moral behavior, I mean he fakes a healing so well even Sister Sharon thinks she’s actually healed someone, decides is a bridge too far. He’ll bilk the believers out of the hard earned dollars but foreclosing on their houses is wrong; rob a little not a lot! Sister Sharon is to blinded by her ambition for a her own church that her ministry is most important, since now she’s a faith healer, that she ignores the issue, or just doesn’t care.
It’s quite clear the intent is for Gantry to be wastrel with a heart of gold, a la Han Solo or Rick Blaine or Jack Sparrow kind of way. The charming lothario who saves the day, except he doesn’t and I’m not sure there was enough character development to take him from the 1920’s version of a Bro to a dark horse hero. Or at least it seems abrupt. Part of the problem there may have been the less than stellar chemistry between our leads. The passion just didn’t come across perhaps if it had our protagonists “conversion” at the end would have been more believable. For me, Sister Sharron was the less believable character, she’s either a honest pious woman overwhelmed in her zeal for God or she’s a shady lady looking to get ahead and starts to believe her own hokum; it’s kind of unclear which she’s supposed to be.
In all, it’s a good effort that with a little more work, and a little recasting the show could be much fun. The music is quite good and I’m always glad to hear other musical genres explored. The rousing gospel numbers made it easy to believe how people could be lured into the show and would leave feeling energized and excited. I thought the supporting cast and ensemble were quite good but this show rises and falls with the leads.