Don't believe the title of "Don't Get God Started" at the Beverly Theatre. It wants to get God started--and does.
Described as "a play depicted in a series of vignettes cradled in inspiring music," "Don't Get God Started" may have created its own genre: a musical sermon dramatically delivered in a gospel/revivalist tradition, punctuated by songs that benefit from the superior voices of Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Howard McCrary, enhanced by the high-visibility names of Taurean Blacque ("Hill Street Blues") and Chip Fields ("Good Times," "Facts of Life") and given an edge of authority by playwright Ron Milner.
Milner directed this piece and wrote the book from an idea developed by him and Barry Hankerson, one of the show's producers. Neither undertaking is particularly distinguished.
The plus and the minus of "Don't Get God Started" is precisely its parochialism. It is not for general consumption (such as that other gospel-oriented musical of the early '70s, "Dont Bother Me I Cant Cope"). It is a pious lesson in morality for the already converted that might work as a new form of religious service. As theater, it's in immediate trouble, largely because the black and the white of it all (all connotations intended) is too rigidly channeled. Blacque and Fields play a variety of parts--couples in assorted difficulties--all of which end up providing predictable lessons in behavioral just rewards.
The quality of the acting (Marilyn Coleman and Ernie Banks share the honors with Blacque and Fields) is far superior to that of the situations, which tend to range from the mawkish or melodramatic to the pleasantly humorous.
Fields has her share of comedy when she's composing Sylvia's feminist tract and Blaque has genuinely funny moments as the sex-obsessed Silk. That the situations are peppered with garden-variety homilies and all manner of cliches ("Yes, with the help of God, one day at a time. . . . ") doesn't help.
The distinct impression one gets is that direct preachment is the purpose here. It was--if anything--confirmed by the Saturday-night audience that responded with enthusiasm to every religious enjoinder and to the manifest spirit of joyous redemption invoked by Armstrong's and McCrary's full-throated interludes, backed by a solid choir. (Marvin Winans did the rousing music and lyrics, with McCrary serving also as vocal and musical arranger.)
The crowd's unquestioning acceptance of events on stage seemed gleefully extended to overlook the fuzzy overmiking, murky lighting (Lennie Delduca) and generally sloppy production values, an approach that even coined a new word. "Pentinence" was substituted for "penitence" in one of the many scene titles flashed across a central screen in Terry Smith's rudimentary platform set.
As with the rest of this show, however, the object is apparently intent more than execution. The religiously responsive audience didn't seem to mind, but anyone in search of something theatrically satisfying should know that "Don't Get God Started" is a musical world-and-a-half away from Milner's memorable "Jazz Set."
Performances at 9404 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, run Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., Sundaysa at 3 and 7 p.m., until Sept. 14. (213) 274-6755.
'DON'T GET GOD STARTED'
A religious musical produced by Barry Hankerson, Bernard Parker, Robert Stein and Stephen Schneider at the Beverly Theatre, 9404 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Associate producer Keeth Wallace. Book Ron Milner. Music and lyrics Marvin Winans. Musical consultant Ronald Winans. Director Milner. Additional staging Ruby Millsap, Charles Wright. Conductor, vocal and musical arranger Howard McCrary. Scenic designer Terry Smith. Lighting designer Lennie Delduca. Wardrobe Victoria Shaffer. Production coordinator Louis Mellini. Cast Taurean Blacque, Chip Fields, Marilyn Coleman, Ernie Banks, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Howard McCrary. Choir Cathy Cagle, Janice Charles, Mary Cooks, Jennifer George, Cathy Henderson, Debbie Hunley, Brent R. Jones, Valerie Scott, Tony Simon, Michael Starr, Danny Sturdivant. Musicians Justo Almario, Mike Feller, Mark Gasbero, Alphonso Johnson, Bud Nuanez. Tickets $16.75 to $18.75. Performances run Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m., until Sept. 14; (213) 274-6755.