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Off Broadway Reviews

Children of God
part of the
Midtown International Theatre Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The signature moment of Children of God, the gospel–meets–hip-hop musical playing at the June Havoc Theatre as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, occurs in the final moments of the first act. D.C., an inner-city high school senior, has come to the televised urban talent competition Stars America with his dance group and dreams of escaping his hardscrabble existence. But tragedy has struck: One of his trio has vanished. The sole girl, Tunica, whom D.C. not-so-secretly likes, encourages him to go out on the giant stage and sing alone the song he wrote for a wedding anniversary at his church. Could anything be more square?

As D.C. steps into the harsh spotlight, he's tentative. He hasn't rehearsed this song or thought about it in months, so he sings it quietly, almost mumbling. But as he listens to the message of its title ("I Believe in Love"), realizing it represents both his emotions for Tunica and those he's learning from his parents, who run a local church on the verge of bankruptcy, he grows in self-assurance vocal strength. Knowing this contest can mean college and security or utter financial ruination, he gives it his all and before long is riffing, wailing in full-voice falsetto, and shoving the number's corny, 1950s sentiment straight into 2011. It is a quintessential soulful rendition.

Oh, and did I mention that D.C. is white? Yes, it's his family's unique racial make-up that makes D.C.'s transformation from talented wannabe into breakout star something more than just a garden-variety rags-to-riches tale. Charles Bernard Murray demonstrates with his writing of this show that poverty, success, and religion are among society's greatest equalizers, and that any pain can be overcome. D.C. (excellently played, as both pseudo-nerd and post-debut-sensation, by Nathan Lucrezio) may be the most visible example of this, but Children of God is full of them—and thrives because of that fact.

D.C.'s father, Peter (played by Murray himself), is the church pastor, whom his white mother, Deborah (Ashley Taylor), married just out of high school. She never told D.C.'s biological father about him—he was someone with real promise, and she didn't want to stop him from escaping the neighborhood and making something of himself. In turn, Peter and Deborah have worked to make the neighborhood at least a spiritually fulfilling prison. They've helped sustain their congregation through the devastating economic downturn, which has affected everyone from the high-school counselor (Gian-Carla Tisera) and her husband (Paul Geiger), who haven't been "intimate" recently due to his feelings of unemployment inadequacy, to Tunica (Jennie Harney) and her true-believing grandmother, Mother Harris (Starlett Brown), to D.C. and Tunica's friend and dancemate Will (Keith Antone), who's been embracing illicit activities to make ends meet, and is usually only one step ahead of the police.

Each character, however, including Chazz (Stephen Glavin), the Stars America impresario who fled the neighborhood 18 years ago to become a music-industry power player and has returned to adjudicate the auditions, is fighting a losing battle with expectations. From within and from without, they're struggling with what their roles are and should be within this community, and how far they can or must go in order to keep everyone else on the straight and narrow, too. This is a musical that's full of good people, most of whom are so predisposed to make bad choices that they rely on everyone else's goodness to compensate. What problems arise do so only when the lines of communication break down.

If this sounds a bit corny and well trod, it is. Murray does have some fun with his story's latent predictability in the second act, when a cascade of characters considering the odd timing of Chazz's departure relative to D.C.'s birth are finishing their calculations within seconds of the audience. But for the most part, the periphery of the action is parched. The score is dramatically serviceable but unmemorable, blending church and pop music in ways that seldom highlight the best parts of either (the songs' fragmentary nature especially doesn't help); only one number, Deborah's "I'm Not Perfect," taps into recognizable character torment. And the book is suggestions more than specifics. You want D.C. to be as passionate about his music career as he claims he is, or his parents to be as gung-ho about his continuing education as they claim, or for Tunica and Will to be conflicted about their and D.C.'s future in a way that doesn't always set them up to deliver audience-baiting comic zingers. And does Mother Harris need to be a literal prophet as well as a figurative one?

But Children of God has heart to spare, and that's what it needs most. Each performer conveys his or her character's deep confliction, and subsequent discovery of a much bigger world outside personal boundaries. The clearest and most effective transitions include Antone's from a common street thug to a humbled family man, Murray's from dismissive frustration to enthusiastic encouragement, and Geiger's from depressive to exultant (with a stunning, soaring performance of the Act II gospel opener, "Wait"). But what comes through clearly from everyone, under the thoughtful direction of Ben Harney (the original, Tony-winning Curtis Taylor, Jr., in Dreamgirls), is that all these people are driven and buoyed—whether they know (or admit) it or not—by faith.

For most that translates into a literal belief in a higher power; for a couple of others it's the belief that the support systems they've constructed will never let them fall all the way. In either case, that judgment is not misplaced. Among the sadness that so pervades their existence, there is always hope, even if they have to roll up their sleeves and create it themselves. Children of God may not be the sharpest or most intricate musical to hit the stages this summer (or this year at all), but for that reason alone, it may be the most positive and uplifting.

Children of God
Running time: 120 minutes with one intermission
The June Havoc Theatre - 312 W. 36th St., first floor
Tickets and Current Performance Schedule: Ovation Tix

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