- OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic
“The medium is the message.” – Marshall McLuhan
Evangelist preacher Adamenses Huckster (Geoff Davin) is a huckster indeed. Her “redemptive” message seems simple enough: “You can choose to see things differently.” And that is exactly what the revivalist hopes to accomplish in her fifth annual benefit concert, revival, and pot luck dinner for her First Church of Mary, the Repentant Prostitute’s “ministries.” She wants her congregation to see a dedicated, caring pastor simply raising funds to missionize Hawaiian children; however, what is revealed in Mr. Davin’s high-energy new musical “The First Church of Mary…” currently playing at part of the 2016 New York Musical Festival is a hypocritical charlatan who has consistently preyed on the spiritual aspirations of her congregation. Pastor Huckster is indeed the man behind the curtain no one ought to pay attention to.
Geoff Davin is splendid as Adamenses Huckster (the provenance of that given name will become clear during the musical). It is clear he enjoys playing the female preacher and gives his character an aggressive yet somehow vulnerable persona. He give’s Huckster the level of moral ambiguity needed to carry off the role. Mr. Davin leads the revival with passion and draws the audience/congregation into his scams and schemes with a chilling – and somewhat sultry – performance. Apparently Mr. Davin experienced a pastor like Adamenses in his youth and bases his caricature on that preacher.
Mr. Davin’s strength is in his music and lyrics. The ten soul/gospel songs in the musical are uniformly powerful. Eight of the songs are original with two being traditional spirituals (“Gospel Train” and “Higher Ground”) with additional music and lyrics and arrangements by Mr. Davin. Her revival concert normally features the three voices of the Johnson Sisters; however, the death of one of the sisters leaves Ruwanda (Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva) and Luwanda (Brooke Leigh Davis) to carry on with ankle-monitored prisoner Shelly Braithwaite (Rosemary Fossee) to fill in. These three vocalists are powerhouses of vocal skill. Their rich multi-tonal voices grab the lyrics of Mr. Davin’s songs and deliver them with unquestionable authority.
Perhaps most impressive is Charlotte’s (Megan Murphy Chambers) “Soldier On” which she delivers after her testimony – the turning point of the musical. Ms. Chambers has a well-trained voice with strong support and has impressive interpretive skills. When Ms. Cambers deliver’s Charlotte’s testimony, the audience sits in awe of the strength of that character.
Guitarist Michael San Miguel leads the SOUL’D OUT NYC band that accompanies the concert. This is a talented group of young musicians who know their instruments well and know how to unite to present a big sound with requisite interpretive skills that make their performance delightful to the ear and to the heart. Mr. San Miguel also delivers an engaging performance as Huckster’s “number one” band member and disinterested “squeeze.”
Interesting characters with believable conflicts manage to support the musical’s plot mostly through song. Mr. Davin’s book is weak and will hopefully develop further in the future. It might even be desirable for him to bring an experienced book writer on board the creative team. Director Martha Wilkinson generally keeps the revival moving at a desirable pace. That pace begins to diminish in the second act, particularly around the revival team’s testimonies. This section of the musical needs tightening. That said, “The First Church of Mary…” is a delightful foray into the underbelly of one errant evangelical ministry too focused on new cars and glitzy vacations for the huckster-at-large.
THE FIRST CHURCH OF MARY, THE REPENTANT PROSTITUTE’S FIFTH ANNUAL BENEFIT CONCERT, REVIVAL, AND POT LUCK DINNER
“The First Church of Mary...” is an Official Selection of the 2016 New York Musical Festival’s Next Link Project. Lighting Designer: Benjamin Weill; Sound Designer: Megan Culley; Production Stage Manager: Katie Veglio; Publicist: Paul Siebold/Off Off PR. Production photos by M. Chris Pennell.
The cast includes Megan Murphy Chambers, Geoff Davin, Brooke Leigh Davis, Rosemary Fosse, and Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva.
Musical accompaniment is by SOUL’D OUT NYC, including Keys: Olivier Court; Trumpet: Paul Tafoya; Sax: Gabriel Richards; Trombone: Nathaniel Ranson; Bass: Louis de Mieulle; Drums: Antoine Cara; and Guitar: Michael San Miguel.
“The First Church of Mary...” plays for four remaining performances at the June Havoc Theatre, 312 West 36th Street (2nd Floor), on the following schedule: Wednesday, July 20, 2016 at 5:00 pm; Wednesday, July 20, 2016 at 9:00 pm; Friday, July 22, 2016 at 5:00 pm; Friday, July 22, 2016 at 9:00 pm. Tickets are $27.50 and can be purchased online at nymf.org or by calling 212-352-3101. For more information, please visit http://www.nymf.org. The runtime is two hours, which includes one 15-minute intermission.