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6/2/2024        THE PREACHER’S WIFE             Alliance Theatre


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And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

                        KJV:  I Corinthians 13:13


Long-time readers will know I am a long-time religious skeptic, and often have mixed reactions to works espousing religious or faith-based stories and themes.  As an example of my ambivalence towards religion in general, look no further than my mixed reaction to Sister Act: The Musical last week – I saw a crowd-pleasing play that used religious characters disrespectfully, as objects of smug disdain.  For the record, aspects of that show were zealously faith-splained to me, so there’s a really good chance my P.O.V. had no basis in the show itself (and yet, I stand by my original review).


So, why then did The Preacher’s Wife appeal to me so much?  Can it be as simple as the score being more to my music preferences than Sister Act?  I suspect not – there are many shows that had scores “not my cup of tea” that, through repetition (and more than a few great productions) have become favorites (Rent and In the Heights to name just two).


In the case of The Preacher’s Wife, I believe the appeal to me is the gentle kindness at its heart.  It seems to be about the healing power of faith, hope, and charity (both in its contemporary “generosity-to-others” meaning and in its more classic

“unconditional-empathy-for-all” – Agape Love if you will -- meaning), with “Faith” being a faith in the power of hope and charity rather than in any “from-on-high” dogma or tradition or deity.  This is a faith I can (and do) believe in.


The Preacher’s Wife is based on a 1996 movie (with Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington), which in turn was based on a 1947 movie called The Bishop’s Wife (with Cary Grant and David Niven and Loretta Young), which in turn was based a 1938 novel by Robert Nathan.  Apropos of nothing, I liked this show so much, I quickly caught up with both movie versions. I’ll put reading the book on my “maybe someday” list.


In all three (scripted) versions of the story, we meet a Bishop/Preacher facing the closing of his church as his marriage seems to be crumbling around him. When he prays for help, it comes in the form of an angel named Dudley, an angel who comes with a strict set of “rules,” many of which he quickly breaks.  Throughout, Dudley performs minor acts of whimsical miraculousness – a bottomless wine glass, a self-playing piano (or harp) with a long-forgotten melody, a new-found ice-skating skill – but refrains from doing tasks and mercies his “assignment” could (or should) be doing himself.  In all three versions, Dudley goes through (this) life with a permanent smile and a warm regard for everyone he meets, which become contagious to even the crankiest of characters (and, apparently, critics). 


Throughout, any greater miracles that happen – and you could argue they do happen – are engendered by appeals to heart, to hope, and to empathy.


Yes, there are slight changes between the various versions.  The small-town world of the 1947 movie becomes an inner-city gentrifying neighborhood in 1996 and 2024. A seemingly ageless Dudley in 1947 (with memories of Ancient Rome) becomes an out-of-his-time visitor in 1996 (who really likes all the new paradigms and gizmos he is discovering), whose back-story is (finally) made specific in the musical.  The daughter in 1947 (played by Zuzu herself) becomes a son in 1996 and in 2024.


But perhaps the biggest (and most welcome) change in this newest version is the broadening and strengthening of the title character, Julia Biggs, the preacher’s wife.  In both movies (even with Loretta Young and Whitney Houston in full star presence splendor), Julia is defined by her roles – wife, daughter, mother, choir master.  Here she is given agency, becoming an equal partner to her husband, fighting tooth and nail for the survival of the church, bridling at the secrets her husband is “protecting her” from.  This is a strong and compelling character, with secrets of her own that truly surprise when we learn them.


So, credit playwright Azie Dungey for giving the musical a modern female-empowerment spin that meshes delightfully with the oft-retold story, and credit Titus Burgess for nurturing this show through years of development and providing music and lyrics that intersect so well with Ms. Dungey’s book.  This is a score that seamlessly blends classic gospel tropes with sixties/seventies R&B funk.  As usual, the Alliance program neglects to include a song list (*)  so titles will remain nameless until the eventual Broadway cast recording (and yes, this is good enough to open in New York as soon as the Atlanta run ends).  But believe me when I say the melody of Julia’s Act I closing torch song will remain in your head throughout intermission, until it is displaced by some equally memorable numbers in Act II.  I really loved this score and would like nothing more than to hear it again, sooner rather than later.


Yes, those of a judgmental inclination may carp that star Amber Riley (TV’s Glee) is (vocally) no Whitney Houston (yet).  But, IMO, she creates an indelible character with more nuances than Ms. Houston could find, with countless strong belt musical moments.  Yes, her voice tends to get whispy and wavery in the upper registers. But this could easily  be described as voice fatigue after so many performances, or even “holding back” during the matinee performance, and, honestly, it’s still a wonderful performance. 


Akron Lanier Watson is also very good as Reverend Henry Biggs, and his eventual opening up to his wife is a joy to behold, the two actors creating an iconic couple, still deeply in love, still willing to do “whatever it takes” to mend the many rifts in their marriage.  Almost stealing the show are Donald Webber Jr.’s Dudley (he was also in TV’s The Wiz Live with Ms. Riley) and Loretta Devine’s Marguerite. (she also did a wonderful turn as frazzled secretary Beverly in the 1996 movie).  Both create scene-stealing moments and characters and both sing with strength and beauty like the Broadway veterans they are. 


Two boys, Cameron McCrae and Davis Matthews play Julia’s son Jeremiah and his best friend Hakim.  They have a delightful early-in-the show duet as they build a “snowman” that answers the question, “How do you build a snowman when Climate Change stops all the snow?”  They are both very good, and I enjoyed their banter and palpable friendship.  Other roles of note are performed to perfection – Alan H. Green as not-so-soulless entrepreneur Joe Hamilton, Rebecca Covington as secretary Beverly, and Jahi Kearse and Brad Raymond as the church’s Deacons.  They are very capably supported by an enormous ensemble that fills the stage, the church choir, and every corner of the Biggs’ neighborhood.


Scenic Designers Dane Laffrey and Teresa L. Williams have created what seems like a bajillion locations centered on a unit balcony that becomes the church choir loft, the upper level of the Biggs home, elevated sidewalks in different outdoor scenes, and countless other scenes.  The transitions are fluid, silent, and elegant.  Lights, costumes, sound, wigs, and magic (yes, there is magic) all mesh tightly, and the entire production is …well … magical to see, to hear, and to remember,


So, just to put my compare-and-contrast hat for a moment, I liked the cast and the tone of the 1947 movie (Cary Grant and David Niven?  What’s not to like?), I liked the character work and songs in the 1996 movie (Courtney B. Vance is heartbreakingly honest as David and Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston have a chemistry that explodes from the screen).  But I LOVED everything about this musical adaptation.  Character, story, and song weave a web of heartfelt appeal to empathy, to kindness, to charity and love, and, even to hope,


And that my friends, is the greatest strength of this story, of this show.  I have very high hopes for its Broadway future.


    --  Brad Rudy  (   #PreachersWife   #AllianceTheatre  #Tituss Burgess   #Amber Riley   #LorettaDevine


(*) Y’know, I gripe about this every time the Alliance stages a new Broadway-Bound musical, but the explanation could be as simple as giving the cfreators leeway to add or take away songs as the show develops.  Maybe a daily-updated digital listing would make everyone happy?  Thoughts?

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