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Theater Review: “Elmer Gantry” at Signature Theatre

The songs are the weakest point of this otherwise solid musical production.

Charlie Pollock as the titular character in Elmer Gantry. Photograph by Christopher Mueller.

Apparently there’s something about Aimee Semple McPherson that drives people to write musical theater.

The charismatic real-life evangelist has been the inspiration for not one, but two musicals staged at Signature Theatre. First, there was Saving Aimee, Kathy Lee Gifford’s problematic musical about the controversial historical figure, which had its world premiere there in 2007 and briefly found new life on Broadway as Scandalous in 2012. Now there’s Elmer Gantry, which again tells the story of a flawed but magnetic female preacher—and the titular huckster who finds himself entwined with her.

This time, that preacher is technically Sister Sharon Falconer, not Aimee—though Sinclair Lewis, who wrote the novel from which the show was adapted, based several elements of the character on McPherson. Gantry is an unapologetically shady traveling salesman who catches one of Falconer’s tent revival shows and is immediately drawn to her. Since Gantry spent about ten seconds of his youth as a preacher, he’s able to draw on that experience to get Falconer’s attention—and convince her his expertise can bring more attention (and funding) to her enterprise. He’s right about that, and the two become almost an unstoppable pair as they travel the country spreading the word of Jesus (and making money)—and drawing the attention of some opportunistic businessmen in the process.

Lewis’s novel was both shocking and satirical in its day. This Elmer Gantry doesn’t have the same impact: Book writer John Bishop seems more interested in redeeming Gantry than mocking him, and the musical doesn’t really emphasize the dark side of the duo’s manipulative evangelism. Still, the plot moves briskly, and the story keeps the viewer interested, even if a few too many reveals are crammed into the second act of the story. But more important, Elmer Gantry might have worked better as a play with music than as a musical.

On one hand, when the cast is singing the gospel numbers of Gantry and Falconer’s revival show, Elmer Gantry comes alive. Songs like “Walk With the Prophets,” “Carry That Ball,” and “He’s Coming Back” are showstoppers, thanks especially to stand-out singers like Nova Y. Payton and Jessica Lauren Ball. Mel Marvin’s score, which draws from everything from gospel to blues to ’80s-style pop ballads, is lively and diverse, but Bob Satuloff’s lyrics can frequently be clumsy. This is most apparent during Elmer Gantry’s overly explanatory soliloquy songs, which tend to ploddingly spell out plot details and characters’ motivations. (The show opener, “Between Trains,” is a major offender.)

As Gantry, Charlie Pollock works to sell even the most emotive of these ballads, lending sort of a slimy sexiness to the kind-of con man. He’s well-matched in Mary Kate Morrissey, a terrific singer who brings depth and intensity to Falconer in such numbers as “You Don’t Know Who I Am,” which hints at the preacher’s less-than-pure back story. The pair’s scenes together have heat, even if duets like “With You” probably won’t find their place in Broadway history.

Nearly every supporting element of Eric Schaeffer’s production is strong, from the performing ensemble to lush new orchestrations from Bruce Coughlin. Dan Conway’s simple but commanding set of angular wooden beams even gets its own curtain call of sorts during one particularly climatic moment in the show. Signature Theatre is doing everything it can to make Elmer Gantry sing; there just probably should be a little less singing.

Elmer Gantry is at Signature Theatre through November 29. Running time is two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($36.80 to $105.50) are available through the theater’s website.