Guess Who’s Singing at Dinner

Interracial romance in the ’50s was never so easy—or so tuneful.

What if Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe were alive today? Would we find the cardboard characters of South Pacific or Paint Your Wagon as endearing if they'd been imagineered in the past decade rather than a half-century ago? These are just a few of the questions that arise during the West Coast premiere of the new musical Saint Heaven. Based on an unpublished novel by Steve Lyons, Saint Heaven follows the exploits of Thom Rivers (Allan Snyder), a young doctor who left his old Kentucky home after a childhood of paternal neglect. Fast-forward to the opening scene in 1957: Thom's physician father has died, leaving the poor townsfolk of Saint Heaven without any medical care for miles. Since the citizens have known Thom since he was in short pants, they beseech him not to return to Detroit. And in the midst of all this upheaval, Thom is struck by a romantic thunderbolt in the form of Eshie Willington (Tanesha Ross), star singer of the local church congregation. She's black, he's white, which leads to a parable of mixed-race romance that, in Martin Casella's adaptation, is a mile wide in universality and an inch deep in believability. None of which matters so much when its sentiments are expressed in Keith Gordon's songs. His numbers are sturdily constructed, and often soar with gospel fervor or cornpone passion. It also helps that Saint Heaven has voices, costumes, and sets that provide ear- and eye-candy of the highest order. As the young Dr. Rivers discovers, Eshie speaks in tongues during church services. She twitches and writhes on the floor, while blind Pastor Joe Bertram (Kingsley Leggs) interprets her spasms as if he were the official court reporter for the Holy Spirit.This is clearly another time and place, a kind of Southern Brigadoon. In creating this other-world, the cast does its level best with the material provided. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Whenever the performers are delivering Gordon's tunes, they tear past the show's wooden moments, and Saint Heaven truly takes flight. Outside the church, we meet a few more locals, including Thom's best friend, Garrison (Mark Carr), and Maggie (Billie Wildrick), the fiancée Thom once ditched without so much as a see-ya-later. Musically, these white characters sing mainly folk, country, and rock 'n' roll, while their black counterparts get the R&B, gospel, and soul numbers that Gordon so clearly loves. When all these genres meet, as they do in the second-act tearjerker "Not One Thing Tying Me Down," Saint Heaven is everything it aspires to be: dramatic, tuneful, and divinely inspirational. There are a few plot twists along the way, but most of the territory is familiar, with nods to Bye Bye Birdie, Elmer Gantry, Big River, and a half-dozen similar shows. To be fair, Casella faces a real challenge in addressing the show's anachronisms. In the '50s so much was kept behind closed doors, while in today's Jerry Springer society every secret is exposed. Contemporary audiences expect their characters to have every flaw and foible laid bare. If Saint Heaven were Broadway-bound and the calendar read 1960, both Casella and Gordon would be ranked up there with Stanley Kramer. Today, the show is both retro and extremely well-delivered. The cast is largely sensational, with standout performances everywhere. Miss Ross (move over, Diana) can rattle the rafters with her voice, and her Alicia Keys/Lena Horne beauty has most of the house in swoon right beside young Dr. Rivers. As the Rivers family housekeeper, Millie, Cynthia Jones has the same kind of irresistible female baritone that Mavis Staples, Francine Reed, and Merry Clayton have been taking to the bank for decades. Leggs lets the good news of the gospel take him into Ray Charles territory. Wildrick and Carr wail with the best of them without relying on melismatics to do so. To whatever extent Saint Heaven's disparate elements come together, credit director Andrea J. Dymond. Within this two-dimensional portrait of small-town Kentucky, the black and white folk do seem to coexist. Though some moments stretch credibility, Dymond stitches things back together quickly. Cynthia Savage's costuming of her male characters owes more to Mad Men than to the boxy suits actually in fashion for DiMaggio, Desi, or even Elvis. But her women's fashions are sparkling, a delicate balance of nostalgia and whimsy. Were it not for the amazing voices and some first-rate acting, the star of the show would be Tom Sturge's twin triumphs in set design and lighting. If ever a musical could demonstrate how a grasp of design helps to light a show and vice-versa, it does here. Sturge's period flourishes ground the production in a place and time. And if it's actually 2008 outside the theater, that won't diminish your enjoyment of a show that, during the Eisenhower years, could've been the toast of Broadway.

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