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STAGE REVIEW : 'Elmer Gantry' as Paradox : A Ruthless Rogue Is Born Again in La Jolla Musical

October 22, 1991|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

LA JOLLA — There's plenty to recommend the sparkling "Elmer Gantry," emphatically subtitled "A New Musical" at the La Jolla Playhouse. No one, especially not its creators, wants it confused with the old musical, "Gantry," that lasted for a handful of previews and even fewer performances on Broadway in 1970.

To see the "Elmer Gantry" that opened at the Mandell Weiss Theatre on Sunday is to assume that all it shares with the previous one are the Sinclair Lewis novel on which it's based and producer Joseph Cates. Cates was behind the 1970 effort. Cates has been behind every effort since, including this La Jolla edition and an earlier version of it that played Ford's Theatre in Washington in 1988.

But as a musical, this "Elmer Gantry" remains beset by frustrating paradox.

It is stylishly staged by Des McAnuff in a succession of technically sophisticated and otherwise splendid panoramic and/or beatific settings by Heidi Landesman (who did as much for "Big River," another playhouse collaboration with McAnuff that went on to greater glory on Broadway).

Its delights are topped by the snappy Mark Harelik in the roguish title role of a smart and ruthless snake-oil charmer who'll wrap himself around any profit-making idea and run with it--and the lithe Sharon Scruggs as true-believer Sister Sharon Falconer, rapt by the attention she gets from this handsome stranger and the wonders he performs for her and her ministry. The alchemy between the wily con man and the wispy voluptuary is definitely there.

So where's the beef? Partly with the book by John Bishop, which bogs down in plot development problems in Act Two, and partly with the fluid, melodic but passive score by Mel Marvin, supported in the same vein by Bob Sutaloff's lyrics. Both are pleasant and accessible; neither is galvanizing, mordant nor satirical in a musical that begs for a hard or at least jagged edge.

What "Elmer Gantry" has by way of musical highlights is traditional ballads (Gantry's "Between Trains" and "Night Heat," Gantry's and Falconer's love duet "With You") and progressively more fervent revivalist choruses.

These are aided, abetted and even substantiated by the gospel contributions of Darlene Love, Jennifer Leigh Warren and Lynette DuPre as powerful members of Falconer's "troupe" (an unusual term for a ministry). Love, Warren and DuPre even have their very own number with Gantry ("Troubled Blues"), which easily tops all others for sheer dazzle and showmanship.

McAnuff's staging is gleaming with its usual polish and bursts of imagination. He has enlisted Marcia Milgrom Dodge to come up with some richly mocking choreography (note especially the football player's road to religion). And lights and sound by Chris Parry and Scott Lehrer, respectively, combine with the Landesman sets to create stunning effects.

This ministry rides buses, trains and cars with alacrity and a conviction made largely possible by a clever turntable. It also unites for rousing renditions of "The Wellspring," a number at once appealing, hummable and symptomatic of the show's mixed message.

Musicians in the pit and on stage succeed in giving utmost vitality to their rendition of the Marvin score. They gleefully embrace the contagion of the musical's revivalist spirit. And yet, for all of those efforts, a kind of restrained politeness dogs the show. The predominant question: Where's the bite? Just when we need McAnuff to go for the jugular, he stops reverentially short.

This tameness may well be a fallout of the too-harmonious Marvin score (he also did "Tintypes" and the 1987 "Babbitt" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles) and of the superficial ferocity of the backstage power games that need deepening in Bishop's book. But in a story that clamors for progressive vulgarity, raucousness and menace--elements McAnuff has excelled at delivering in the past--this "Elmer Gantry" remains disconcertingly prim, content to substitute a smoldering, prurient passion for real fire and brimstone. Or for potentially deeper philosophical issues.

(The authors have updated the period from World War I to 1933, presumably to make a comment on the Depression and its parallels with today's recession. But that comment never comes.)

Without a basic shift in intention and tone, a shift that would involve composer and book-writer before it can involve the director, it's hard to see how "Elmer Gantry" the musical can change.

"Love and faith are not handouts," says an impassioned Falconer. "They're achievements." So is the delicate balance of a musical. Something for the creators of "Elmer Gantry" to rethink as they ponder its future life.

* "Elmer Gantry," La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 24. $24-$32. (619) 534-3960. Running time: 3 hours.

'Elmer Grantry'

Mark Harelik: Elmer Gantry

Sharon Scruggs: Sister Sharon Falconer

Darlene Love: Mary Washington/Speakeasy singer

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