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STAGE REVIEW : Too Little of Holliday in 'The Gospel Truth'

December 11, 1987|RAY LOYND

It's no surprise that Jennifer Holliday is top-billed in "The Gospel Truth" at the Beverly Theatre. But it is surprising to find her playing only a moderate role in the musical book and the score.

It's a show business axiom that stars are trumpeted even if their roles are light stuff. In "The Gospel Truth," a solidly staged, rollicking celebration of the House of the Lord, Holliday's wifely figure takes a back seat to two considerably stronger characters: a preacher husband (Johnny Brown) and a boozy, disaffected daughter (Debbie Allen look-alike Peggy Ann Blow). Holliday is not even as prominent as two supporting characters--Ricke Howell's competitive reverend/son and David Whitfield's show-stealing choric jive man.

This popular show, which concludes its Los Angeles run Sunday and moves on to Oakland on Jan. 25, was not written with Holliday in mind. She only joined the troupe last month. If she stays aboard, the book and score (by veteran Motown producer William "Mickey" Stevenson) certainly merits expansion in her favor.

Holliday is vocally featured in six numbers (as many as she sang in "Dreamgirls"). But seldom does she take the spotlight, and in only one instance does she knock out the house. That is in the song "Something Wrong." Here, finally, Holliday's vocal signature, a gathering of ferocious emotional power, leaves the audience members shaken and talking to themselves.

At this moment in the show, Holliday's impact rivals that of her showstopping "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls." But, unforgivably, the wallop of "Something Wrong" falls one number short of concluding the first act in "Gospel Truth." The producers instead send the audience into intermission with the schmaltzy "We Are a Family."

Holliday is featured vocally only twice in the second act (and memorable only once, on "It's Not Impossible"). Shored up with a stronger dramatic character, there's a terrific show here for Holliday. But this is not it--yet.

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