Like most of the African American "urban musicals" of recent years, "Madea's Class Reunion" is more of a marketing phenomenon than an artistic one. And its marketing success -- much of it based on an e-mail list with 170,000 names -- was evident Tuesday at the nearly filled 3,400-seat Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.
"L.A. has been the last city left to conquer," said the show's East Coast-based producer/director/star Tyler Perry in remarks to the audience after the opening night performance. "When we called the Kodak, they said 'Tyler who?' "
Not surprising, since the kind of star power that can fill the Kodak, in the heart of Hollywood, often depends on TV, movies or recordings, none of which Perry has yet cracked.
It's too bad, though, that Perry can't harness his producing prowess to a higher artistic standard. Most of "Madea's Class Reunion" is the usual amalgam of stereotyped characters and short scenes that alternate among sitcom banter, heavy-handed domestic drama and gospel-inspired musical interludes -- with a touch of slapstick here, a dash of sanctimonious homilies there.
All of which is carried to the most remote corner of the Kodak via a pumped-up sound system that's set at earsplitting levels.
The main difference between this show and many of the other urban musicals is that Perry also takes the show-stopping role -- or, in this case, two roles -- for himself.
In the first act, he plays a rude, wisecracking bartender at the hotel where the play is set. The bartender is fired just before intermission and disappears. But Perry returns in drag in the second act as the title character, an irreverent 68-year-old and 17-times-married woman with a Geraldine-style wig and enormous, out-of-control bosoms under her dowdy granny dress.
Perry certainly yanked a lot of laughs out of the audience Tuesday. But the high-flying bartender was funnier than the grandmother.
The generally quick-paced show slows in the second act for a self-indulgent bit in which Madea sits on stage with two other characters, almost in a talk show configuration, and offers advice and other observations, sprinkling in a few impersonations of pop culture figures. Some of Madea's words are hard to decipher because of the distortions of the sound system and her gravelly voice. But the greater problem is that the Kodak is too large for such a static scene.
From a top balcony perspective during the second act, the actors appeared tiny and hardly ever looked up in that direction. The sound system rolled over individual vocal qualities, so it was sometimes difficult to make out who was saying what.
The story, such as it is, gives Madea's class reunion only sporadic treatment. Much more time is spent on tales of philandering spouses, a cruelly fired maid, an aging prostitute and her mean pimp, and -- most important -- Perry's comic antics, which sometimes inspire other actors to break out of character and start laughing.
Intermission begins with a sales pitch for video versions of Perry's show and a comic Madea video that warns would-be video bootleggers of their dire fate.
`Madea's Class Reunion'
Where: Kodak Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 3 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
Info: (213) 365-3500
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tyler Perry...Madea/Dr. Willie Leroy
Written and directed by Tyler Perry. Musical director Mike Frazier.