Gospel musical revives marriage

Even someone lacking a passion for gospel music would have enjoyed T.J. Hemphill’s nationally touring gospel musical, “Lord All Men Can’t Be Dogs.” The production, managed by Marvel Entertainment, landed at Richmond’s Landmark Theatre in late March.

The play follows the deteriorating relationship between a married couple, Tim (Carl Payne of “Martin”) and Lisa (Regina Belle) Johnson. Their marriage was so turbulent that the couple constantly fought. To add further complication, two fallen angels, Strife (David Ruffin Jr.) and Erotica took up residence in the Johnsons’ home to try to ensnare the two in webs of mistrust, adultery and drinking. Luckily for the couple, three rather cowardly, doubting, but nevertheless energetic, angels were there to fight for the Lord against the two evil spirits.

In the first act, the play was fun, light-hearted and focused on the comedic interplay between the angels. They made fun of everything from Michael Jackson to Ray Charles. The angels scared people with typical ghoulish pranks, danced like Charlie’s Angels and Riverdance and got lost in Jackson Ward. Showing improvisational flair, one angel chided humans for their perpetual lateness, an obvious reference to the fact that people were still streaming into the theater 20 minutes after the play started.

It was time to get down to work in the second act as the angels had some doubting, lost souls to save. And that was what happened. The play took on the nature of a revival. In their hour of darkness, the Johnsons, already dealing with suspicions of infidelity and Tim’s drinking, learned that their daughter was kidnapped.

But as Strife and Erotica anticipated the downfall of the couple, the angels’ pleading opened the Johnsons’ hearts to prayer. As a result, the conclusion of the musical contained many happy miracles for the Johnsons. By the end, the crowd was on their feet, yelling their support for the angels, Tim and Lisa. (The women were also on their feet when the well-built kidnapper took his shirt off.)

The production wasn’t flawless. Some scenes were a little long and some of the subplots were not fully developed. Usama bin Laden made a random, rather inappropriate, and unexplained appearance in the first act. There were also scenes where the actors were unable to control their laughter.

But all of these imperfections were forgiven and even embraced by the moved audience when people started singing. The songs were powerful and every actor soulfully and unrestrainedly belted out tunes to the point of physical exhaustion. Quite simply, it was amazing (and put the stars of “American Idol” to shame).

The combination of powerful song, comedy and audience-actor bonding was enough for anyone to enjoy “Lord, All Men Can’t Be Dogs.” It would probably keep an experienced Gospel-lover raving about the play for months to come.

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