Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review: Rejoice in Camp

By Michael Block

If you're looking for a little salvation, take a little trip to Nashville, Tennessee and The First Church of Mary, the Repentant Prostitute. But this is unlike any non-denominational church you've ever seen. The First Church of Mary, the Repentant Prostitute may be lead by Satan herself. The First Church of Mary, the Repentant Prostitute’s Fifth Annual Benefit Concert, Revival, and Pot Luck Dinner, written by Geoff Davin, with additional music and lyrics from Nicole Boggs, KelleyAnn Hocter, and David Mescon, can easily be described as a completely misunderstood play with music that rides high in campy nature and sexual innuendo.
As part of NYMF's 2016 festival, The First Church of Mary, the Repentant Prostitute’s Fifth Annual Benefit Concert, Revival, and Pot Luck Dinner, from here on out being referred to in shortened form, is a brand of comedy that seems to have been lost but now happily found. Though the definition of musical can be debated here, The First Church of Mary, the Repentant Prostitute... takes place in a zany non-denominational church where Adamenses Huckster leads her congregation during the fifth annual benefit concert and pot luck dinner. So who is this benefit benefitting? Why Adamenses herself! If she gets the support of the church-goers, she’s going to Honolulu to save the Honoluluians with her boy toy Dirk! With a strong commentary on belief, faith, and the power of persuasion, if the action is truly inspired by true events as Geoff Davin states in the program note, we should be very afraid. The camp is alive and well. It harkens back to a time where Charles Busch and Charles Ludlam dominated. The inspiration is clear. But the execution may not be. Davin has created a vehicle for himself but he could benefit greatly from taking off the heels and watching from the writer's perspective to see just how the other characters' arcs need some shaping. Adamenses' intent is clear. She is a well-crafted woman. But the characters surrounding her pale in comparison. Unless you can catch the subtleties, often happening out of focus from Adamenses herself, the action and development of the plot occurs much too late. And that intermission? It's got to go. It sucks the momentum out of the event. Continuity is key. Especially how things pick up. There was a strong sense of style in Davin's rockin' southern soul score. With the voices on stage and the exceptional bags, it really is the saving grace if The First Church of Mary, the Repentant Prostitute...
photo by M. Chris Pennell
There is no doubt that this is Geoff Davin's show. He makes Adamenses, the role he plays, Satan in wig and heels. There is little decency in this character and that's what makes you love to hate her. But the hero of this saga is Megan Murphy Chambers as the pissant Charlotte.  Chambers is mighty fine. Relegated to the background, when Charlotte is allowed to break out and have a voice, the gates of heaven open wide. "Soldier On" was a definite magical moment. There was a certain urge to give a mid-show standing ovation. As the background singers, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva and Brooke Leigh Davis as sisters Ruwanda and Luwanda respectively had sensational voices. Their sound filled the room. But it was little scene-stealer Rosemary Fossee as convict Shelly Braithwaite who stole the focus. The little Sara Bareilles look alike had pipes that blended and matched Whitcomb-Oliva and Davis.
Even though the June Havoc Theatre may be a limiting space, there is an expectancy of grandeur when it comes to the realization of the show. The First Church of Mary, the Repentant Prostitute…looked basic. And it didn’t quite match the fabulousness of Adamenses. This is a woman who looks fierce, glittering and shining everywhere she goes. Her church would likely match her personality. The barebones basic set of folding chairs, tables, and plastic tablecloths didn’t do the show justice. Whatever the limitations may be, director Martha Wilkinson needed to realize this world further. Wilkinson did a fine job lifting the comedy from Davin’s text. She punched what needed to be punched while allowing the little laughs land naturally. With the campy nature at the forefront, Wilkinson focused on finding the reality within the absurdity. That is the origin of the comedy. These people believed every word they spoke and Wilkinson made sure of that.
If you’re expecting a musical where the music helps further the plot, stay away from Geoff Davin’s piece. If you’re looking for some southern soul and good laugh then take a trip to The First Church of Mary, the Repentant Prostitute’s Fifth Annual Benefit Concert, Revival, and Pot Luck. It may have the longest title but don’t let it scare you. Where this play with music will go next? That’s the tough part. Some finessing and fine-tuning and you can see a daring company take a risk with it.