- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Lincoln Theatre churns with exuberance and spice, and it isn’t because Ben’s Chili Bowl is right next door.

Red-hot director Kenny Leon has come to town, fresh off his record-breaking Broadway triumph with “A Raisin in the Sun” starring Sean “P. Diddy” Combs to direct “Tambourines to Glory,” Langston Hughes’ ode to Sunday morning gospel and Saturday night sinning.

However, Mr. Leon, who also will direct the Nov. 11 Broadway premiere of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” (the latest installment in the playwright’s 10-play masterwork), does not have a box office draw like P. Diddy (although the rap artist/fashion plate is listed in the program as a $10K-plus contributor) for “Tambourines,” the first play from the True Colors Theatre Company, a new local troupe dedicated to the preservation of “Negro American classics.”

What Mr. Leon does have is an astonishingly talented, enthusiastic cast, which includes a rousing local choir under the direction of Washington native William Knowles.

“Tambourines to Glory” may be overlong and quarries the same spiritual territory until you want to shout “Amen,” but you can’t fault the dynamic actors and singers for the indulgences of the playwright.

Written in 1956 in a record 10 days (on the 11th day, he should have edited), Mr. Hughes described the play to a friend as “a singing, shouting, wailing drama of the old conflict between blatant Evil and quiet Good, with the Devil riding a Cadillac.” That pretty much sums up this sprawling morality tale that takes place in 1950s Harlem (colorfully evoked in an urban chock-a-block set by Marjorie Bradley Kellog), where jazz and be-bop are being taken over by the evil of evils, rock ‘n’ roll.

Laura (Alexandra Foucard), a vivacious wino, spies her nice neighbor lady Essie (Ebony Jo-Ann) sitting out on the front stoop of their boarding house. Essie has been evicted and doesn’t know where her next nickel is coming from, which gives Laura an idea. They should start a church, where Essie would provide the old-time religion while Laura fleeces the congregation out of their hard-earned money.

Thus, the Tambourine Temple is born, where praising the Lord and passing the collection plate are doled out in equal measures. Spurred on by her lover Big-Eyed Buddy Lomax (Kevyn Morrow), literally a handsome devil, Laura cooks up even grander moneymaking schemes, including selling holy water from the river Jordan (actually tap water) and giving out lucky numbers during the weekly sermon. Eventually, Laura sees Buddy for who he is —someone who would make the snake in the Adam and Eve story seem like a garden grub — and redeems herself in a hallelujah of a finale.

“Tambourines to Glory” is an Afrocentric version of “Guys and Dolls” — a vibrant mix of gamblers, floozies, missionaries, and suckers-except that Frank Loesser knew when to say when. Although the gospel choir and the cast are on fire, you can have just so many crescendos before showstopper-fatigue sets in.

The production also had some glaring microphone problems, ranging from the too-loud (Miss Foucard seemed at times to have a bullhorn lodged in her larynx) to the barely audible (Jordon Minter, playing Southern ingenue Marietta, battled a fading body mike throughout the show). The sound mix overall was too loud, often obliterating Mr. Hughes’ dialogue and lyrics.

Yet you emerge from “Tambourines” wowed by the energy and flair of the cast, starting with Mr. Morrow; sexy, cruel, and insinuating as Buddy Lomax. As his victim, Miss Foucard displays both brass and aching vulnerability, not to mention a singing voice that peals all the way up to heaven. Miss Jo-Ann also has her radiant moments as Essie, especially in her deadpan reactions to Buddy’s attempts at religious fervor. Margo Moorer is a riot as Birdie Lee, who resembles a flamingo walking on hot tar when she is “moved by the spirit.”

“Tambourines to Glory” may not be a perfect production, but it is a strong start for the True Colors Theatre Company’s Washington debut.

***

WHAT: “Tambourines to Glory” by Langston Hughes

WHERE: Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St., NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through

Sunday.

TICKETS: $25 to $38

PHONE: 202/397-7328

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