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The First Church of Mary, the Repentant Prostitute's FIFTH ANNUAL!!! Benefit Concert, Revival, and Pot Luck Dinner
at The New York Musical Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 20, 2016

I'm not sure whether music is genuinely capable of bringing you closer to God, but there were times while watching Geoff Davin's new entry at this year's New York Musical Festival that I found myself wondering. The show is titled The First Church of Mary, the Repentant Prostitute's FIFTH ANNUAL!!! Benefit Concert, Revival, and Pot Luck Dinner, and as that jumble of unwieldy words proclaims, this is a piece not remotely without its problems. But when its cast members lift their voices or their instruments, it's tough to avoid being transported—even for a second—to a more spiritual, enlightened place.

Davin's score (for which Nicole Boggs, Kelleyann Hocter, and David Mescon are also credited with "additional" music and lyrics) is an odd fusion reactor of styles you wouldn't think would attempt to mix and mingle in a (sort-of) church show. You'd expect gospel and hymn, of course, and you get those, but everything is interwoven with blues, soul, hard rock (an upward-spiraling guitar solo from onstage band member Michael San Miguel is an unforgettable centerpiece), and even power horns (there's a saxophone, a trombone, and a trumpet, playing chest-puffing arrangements by Tyler Summers), until old and new are so indistinguishable that you're not sure where, when, or why you are.

That's quite an accomplishment, and it's one that unfurls time and time again over the two-hour evening, as Davin mixes his own uncategorizable compositions with rampantly contemporary (and dangerously addictive) spins on traditional tunes like the Victorian-era "Gospel Train" and "Higher Ground." Each new number jolts you to attention with its unassuming daring and the full force of its conviction; this is not a show (thankfully) that's content with bringing a choir-led generic gospel rave-up on as a low-work showstopper. Davin demands you jump into this world feet-first and don't crawl out again until he's shown you a new way to think about what religious can—and, just perhaps, should—be.

Unfortunately, the rest of the show does not come close to meeting these same goals. Where the songs are adventurous, forward-thinking, and completely original, the book is half-formed Nunsense-aping pap that doesn't have the slightest clue what to do with them. The story, set (where else?) in a highly Protestant chunk of Nashville, Tennessee, concerns a female revivalist pastor (Davin himself) named—ugh—Adamenses Huckster who's hosting the annual potluck to raise $10,000 for one of three possible charities—two of which appear to be front groups for Adamenses's own appropriation of the funds. (Let's just say it's no coincidence that this year's proposed "missionary trip" is to Honolulu.) Her assistant Charlotte (Megan Murphy Chambers), on the other hand, has her heart set on the money going to an organization aiding battered women.

You don't need to be a prophet to predict long in advance how all this will shake out. But if the predictability is bad enough on its own, the freshness and vision that elevate the songs is nowhere to be found in the spoken dialogue. Utterly free of direction, restraint, or wit, the scenes ramble on endlessly, making the same points over and over and stumbling through hopelessly clich├ęd plot developments the way a parent might discarded toys in a toddler's bedroom. Because there's never any doubt what will happen or how, you spend three-quarters of the show waiting for the characters to come to the conclusions and take the actions you know are correct within the first five minutes.

Though there's some good potential here—several minutes of stage time are devoted to the comic creation of red velvet cake, a doll representing Mary Magdelene is chosen as the VIP guest, and one of Adamenses's black-backup trio is a short, white Mormon girl (played with admirable verve by Rosemary Fossee)—little is made of these opportunities; Paint by Numbers morality is the order of the day here, and nothing is allowed to interfere. And the events that support this side of things—including a near-pornographic sideshow and a botched quasi-romantic interlude with Miguel—are more manipulatively icky than they are illuminating about Adamenses's inner darkness.

Davin is a firm, authoritative presence who leads the show capably, and with somewhat more nuance than his libretto-writing evinces. Fossee and her teammates, Jennifer Whitcomb-Olivia and Brooke Leigh Davis, sing with compelling force, and have a nicely understated way with comedy. And Chambers, in particular, is excellent, coming closest to crafting a real person who's been dragged into this bizarre world against her will: She sings gorgeously and unlocks palpable sadness in a woman who's had good reason to buy in to Adamenses's professed message. With her direction and choreography, Martha Wilkinson has ably blended a Sunday service with a rock concert, and keeps the tone consistent, even when the book demands it explore other, contradictory directions.

But if the good is far better than it has to be given the one-joke, one-moral premise, the bad is bad enough to interrupt its ascension—and yours—to more exalted celestial planes. If Davin can get the book and the score to preach the same message in the same way, The First Church of Mary might well prove to be a miracle worker of a show. That would require him, however, to abandon the accepted orthodoxy of one-dimensional storytelling he's so openly embraced and try something else. Considering that the score proves he isn't afraid to take chances, he clearly has it in him. Like Adamenses and Charlotte, however, he needs to stop being afraid to let that better part of his nature out.

The First Church of Mary, the Repentant Prostitute's FIFTH ANNUAL!!! Benefit Concert, Revival, and Pot Luck Dinner
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