- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2002

The crescendos in "The Gospel According to Fishman" at Signature Theatre in Arlington come in the fantastic singing and music rather than the storytelling, which often falls flat.
Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer oversees the new musical about a 1960s gospel choir, for which Richard Oberacker created the music and Michael Lazar and Mr. Oberacker did the book and lyrics.
In the opening scene when the audience is still unsure of what to expect gospel star Nehi Taylor (played expertly by E. Faye Butler) and her 11-member choir burst onto the stage with a fast-paced song, "Glory," sending shivers down our spines with the force and beauty of their voices.
For at least 135 minutes, the audience is treated to 17 great gospel-song performances and a 1960s story line that, unfortunately, limps along.
Alan Fishman (played by Tally Sessions), a 21-year-old Jewish composer from Brooklyn, writes spiritual music for the black gospel choir led by Miss Butler's character. While trying to figure out what direction to take in life, Mr. Sessions' character falls in love with one of the black singers, Jolene Cooper (played competently by Ta'Rea Campbell). He decides to follow the choir to Birmingham, Ala., right after the real-life bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the attack that killed four little girls.
Mr. Sessions' character goes because he believes that's what he's "supposed to do," not because of his convictions an interesting topic that's never really explored. His love affair is not examined, either.
Young, naive and precious, the pair kiss, blush and sing duets every 40 minutes, not nearly enough to sustain the chemistry. In fact, the threat by Miss Campbell's character to break off the relationship stirs no emotions in a viewer. Their parts in the musical and they are the main ones are just underwritten.
The best chemistry and comedy are found among the Fishman family members. Florence Lacey wonderfully plays Bunny Fishman and masters all the nagging and quirky qualities of a stereotypical Jewish mother. Howard Fishman, the hard-working father, is portrayed by Harry A. Winter (complete with 1960s black-rimmed glasses, a white undershirt and suspenders), and the sister Rachel Fishman by Susan Lynskey.
The Fishmans always have wanted their son to succeed and to do something important, but "this was not what we had in mind," the mother says.
Rhonda Key designed the costumes 1960s clothing, including tight, pastel-colored belts and wide skirts and James Kronzer did the scenic design. The set looks like the interior of a barn with brown wooden planks for walls and screens, but it becomes a church, the Fishmans' home and a bus station. It's simple and works fine.
Like the story itself, the costumes and the scenic design are mere excuses for the incredible singing. (Musical direction is by Paul Raiman and choreography by Karma Camp.)
Fortunately, Miss Butler is engaging and electric as Nehi (she got the name because she could sing like a goddess when she was knee-high). Like a real-life preacher, she elicits participation from audience members, who clap and cheer along with the gospel performances.
She roars: "Are we having church tonight?" or "Are you ready to sing the gospel?"
When the audience responds quietly, "Yeah," she shakes her head and says, "You don't know Jesus the way I do." A moment later she and the chorus erupt in ecstatic dancing and soulful singing.
For those who want the gospel truth: This production is for those interested in a light look at the 1960s civil rights movement, not for those who want a serious exposure to that era but it's still music to the ears.

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