Monday, November 01, 2010

Guest Blogger Tim Hulsey Reviews 'Sanctified' and 'Locomotion'

Sanctified satisfies at Lincoln Theatre; Locomotion derails at Kennedy Center
Tim Hulsey
Special to The Metro Herald

“Democracy,” said H.L. Mencken, “is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

If that's true, then the new musical Sanctified, now playing through November 14 at the historic Lincoln Theatre, is theatrical democracy in action.  A potent brew of shout-and-holler gospel music, country comedy, Sunday-school piety, and aw-shucks know-nothingism, Sanctified knows exactly what its audience wants, and gives it to them good and hard.

The plot, what there is of it, involves the East Piney Grove Baptist Church, a dwindling African-American congregation in deep but otherwise unspecified financial trouble.  The young pastor (John McClure, Jr.) has pinned his church's last hope on a 30th anniversary Gospel Revival, and brought in his opera-diva cousin (Mary Millben) to assist with the proceedings.  A lay minister, Deacon (Frederick Strother), respectable to the marrow but lacking spiritual fervor, schemes to remove the pastor from his post.

Meanwhile, two mysterious “delivery men” (William T. Newman, Jr., and Joshua Nelson) work behind the scenes to ensure the revival's success – and it hardly counts a “spoiler” to reveal that these delivery men are actually angels in disguise.  Of course, the pastor's plans for this revival will go awry in a most amusing and heartwarming – if predictable -- manner.

Still, scene-stealing turns from Almonica Caldwell as a gossipy church lady and Ellis Foster as a doddering, unintelligible elderly chorister keep the proceedings lively, even through Sanctified's overlong, overstuffed second act. 

Moreover, playwright Javon Johnson provides a generous helping of strong comic business – most of it amusing, and all instantly recognizable -- for the squabbling, backbiting members of the East Piney Grove Gospel Choir.  But Bernadine Mitchell, as elderly Sister Sarah, walks away with the heart of the show, delivering her character's Christian homilies with world-weariness and absolute sincerity.

Then there is the score, a blend of traditional gospel tunes and original material by Rollo Dilworth and Raymond Reeder.  For a patchwork score like this, the music of Sanctified holds together fairly well, and the original title tune, “Sanctified,” is an instant Sunday-morning classic, guaranteed to linger in the mind for days.  Mary Millben, a Leontyne Price-soundalike (with showy coloratura to match), gets top honors for solo vocals, though gospel-music veteran John McClure, Jr., a top-five finalist on BET's Sunday Best, takes a strong second place: Their first-act duet “Come Out the Wilderness” is far and away the vocal highlight of the show.  Only the treacly second-act love ballad “A Miracle in Your Eyes” and the rap number “Tougher Than My God” feel out of place here; the style and subject matter of these pieces are not in keeping with the rest of the show.  (As an added bonus, for several nights of the run, the promoters of Sanctified have asked a “guest artist” to perform the next-to-last number of the evening.)

Technical aspects of the show are uneven.  The historic Lincoln Theatre, which hosted legendary performances by Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, may be the perfect venue for a show like Sanctified, but with Sanctified, problems with the sound mix along with the unpredictable acoustics of the venue occasionally make some of the voices (especially Millben's) shrill, tinny and unpleasant.  The crew seems to be working these problems out, slowly and gradually.  But visually, at least, the show is always striking, thanks to a stylishly evocative set by Tony Cisek and moody lighting from William H. Grant, III.

Playwright Javon Johnson seems to have conceived Sanctified as a Tyler Perry-esque response to the ever-popular Smoke on the Mountain series of country-gospel musicals.  The show strikes more than its share of false notes, particularly in its callous attitude toward the “hincty” college-educated opera singer, and in the impossibly trite angel subplot.  But like the East Piney Grove Gospel Choir itself, it overcomes its many problems through sheer good will.  This isn't highbrow theater by any standard, but at its best, Sanctified illuminates the triumphs and tribulations of a close-knit community of faith.  Sanctified is a mess, but it's a rousing, entertaining mess, guaranteed to leave the audience both sanctified and satisfied.

I wish I could say half as much for the world premiere of Jacqueline Woodson's Locomotion, which just finished a brief run at the Kennedy Center.  Woodson adapted this 70-minute children's drama from her Newbery Honor Award-winning book, chronicling a turbulent year in the life of an inner-city African-American orphan who finds a much-needed outlet for self-expression in his daily poetry journal.

 The book Locomotion has become middle-school required reading for all the right reasons, but few of its rough edges and hardly any of the narrative drive have made the transition from page to stage.  As eleven-year-old Lonnie Collins Motion (the “Lo-Co-Motion” of the title), Nickolas Vaughan sounds and acts more like a happy children's television host than the brooding, introverted character of the book.  Fatima Quander, playing all the women's roles in the show, is convincing in none of them.  Of the three-person cast, G. Alverez Reid makes the strongest impression, mostly in the role of Lonnie's classmate Enrique.

 As adapter and playwright, Woodson peppers her script with easy bromides, flat speeches, one-dimensional characters and crass tearjerker moments, in a manner that, ironically enough, betrays the tough-minded spirit of her original book.  Jennifer L. Nelson's broad direction condescends to her intended audience of children, most of whom seemed bored and restless at the performance I attended.  Production values are excellent, as one would expect from the Kennedy Center, but on the whole, this Locomotion goes nowhere fast.

Sanctified:  Book by Javon Johnson, original music by Rollo Dilworth and Raymond Reeder.  Directed by Derrick Sanders.  Lincoln Theatre (near U St./Cardozo Metro Station) through November 14.  Two hours and fifty minutes, including 15-minute intermission.  Tickets $37-$47 plus service and facility charges.  For tickets, call (202) 397-SEAT or visit  For more information, call (202) 328-6000, or visit or

Locomotion:  Adapted by Jacqueline Woodson from her Newbery Honor Award-winning book.  Directed by Jennifer l. Nelson.  Kennedy Center Family Theater, October 23-31.  70 minutes, no intermission.  For tickets to Kennedy Center performances, visit or call Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600.

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