The great Melba Moore makes a rare Atlanta appearance in the gospel comedy “Good God A’Mighty!,” but even her presence can’t save this off-balance production.
Running through February 24 at the 14th Street Playhouse, “Good God A’Mighty!” is a musical comedy that ultimately is light on both songs and humor. Moore plays Reen L’Dimp, the choir director of Shady Grove Church in New Orleans. When new pastor Charles Zachery (La Darian Raymond) moves down from New York with his own agenda, it threatens the locals, who don’t cotton to his plans or his wife Bernice (Brittany L. Smith). The other church regulars include Mother Nelson (Just June) and Mother Calhoun (Shena Renee’), who may not like the pastor’s ways but share a physical attraction to him, and Deacon Burton (Dante Carter).
Lolita Snipes, a former Atlantan, wrote the script and also directs.
At 67, Moore, who made her Broadway debut with “Hair” and later won a Tony Award for “Purlie,” can still command a stage. But this project doesn’t give her much to do besides act grumpy as she faces potential change in her church. For a show that pushes the two-and-a-half-hour mark, little happens. The story is pretty bony and after a while makes little narrative sense. Most of the conflict seems to disappear when Reen confronts a homeless man named Banjabo (Roderick Barnswell) — who’s been living outside the church for 12 years and has a Big Secret in Act II — and invites him in for a service.
Snipes does take satirical pokes at the African-American church tradition and has fun with a character who breaks into a holy dance, but it’s repeated so often that it loses any novelty. A scene where Mother Nelson and Mother Calhoun interact with the audience for donations also has potential, but it goes on entirely too long.
Many of the characters in the large cast are bland and undeveloped. Bernice, for example, has no discernible dimensions other than an animosity toward other women in the church. Others go well over the top. It’s clear that, as a director, Snipes rarely encourages her actors to calm down. At times it’s almost a race to see which supporting players can try and steal scenes. Renee’ especially overdoes the shtick. Like many in this production, she seems talented, but her Mother Calhoun spins out of control.
The greatest pleasure in watching “Good God A’Mighty!” is Just June as Mother Nelson. Perhaps best known for her appearances on HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam,” she is a gifted comic, nimble with her delivery and physicality. She makes old jokes seem fresh with killer timing.
What’s ultimately most disappointing here is that for a show involving a church choir that sings gospel music, it’s not a full-fledged musical. Moore sings a verse of “Amazing Grace” early on — holding a note for an amazingly long time — but she isn’t really allowed to let loose until the end. Barnswell and Brandon McCall (playing Brother Theophilus) also display nice voices in brief numbers. This is mostly a straightforward comedy; if it were a more traditional musical, the uneasy framework could be ignored. When the entire cast lets go with a full number at the 2:20 mark, it’s a standout moment. Sadly, it’s not worth the wait. “Good God A’Mighty!” has potential but never really finds it.