It couldn't have been easy to mix sex, religion and spirituals and come up with nothing, but the people who put together "Amen Corner," last night's musical at the Nederlander, have accomplished it.
Scenes of dialogue that seems to have been taken directly from the old James Baldwin play, on which the show is based, arouse our interest momentarily, but then one or another of the indifferent songs by Garry Sherman (music) and Peter Udell (lyrics) takes over and we sink once more into the lethargic atmosphere that prevails for most of the evening. Not that Baldwin's play, or the current adaptation of it, is especially stimulating in itself, but the songs have a way of burying what life remains in it. Also, and oddly, while the spoken passages have a natural sound, the volume is stepped up so suddenly whenever the performers break into song that the show sounds like a bad cast recording.
The story, some may recall, is about the female pastor of a storefront church in Harlem who, 10 years earlier, left her husband after delivering a stillborn daughter and is now raising their teenage son to succeed her as leader of the small flock she governs so strictly. It is not until (at least, in this version) the husband, an ailing jazz musician near death, returns and the son leaves to lead his own life, that she loosens up and acts human again. Even the finish of the show - with Pastor Margaret leading her group in the rhythmically affirmative "Rise and Stand Again" - loses something in the way of joyousness when, in plain view on the sofa in Margaret's adjoining apartment, we see the corpse of her husband, deserted but not concealed for that finale.
It is a show you want to like, and so you go searching for small pleasures. Perhaps the greatest of these is the discovery of Helena-Joyce Wright, a grad student on leave from the University of Houston and making her debut as the sassy Sister Boxer, a church elder. Lanky and pretty, and singing and moving like a trouper, Wright is a natural. There is also a nicely considered, sympathetic performance by Roger Robinson as the returned husband, Luke, and an appealing one by Keith Lorenzo Amos as awakening son, David. And father and son make something enjoyable out of a halfway-entertaining up-tempo number called "We Got a Good Thing Goin'."
Since the show's star, Rhetta Hughes, is under wraps most of the evening, so to speak, it's difficult to give her credit for more than a good singing voice, though on the evidence she is not a particularly effective actress, Robinson carrying the major part of their big confrontation scene. Yeoman-like work is contributed by Chuck Cooper as the cheeky Brother Boxer, Ruth Brown as Margaret's older sister, and Jean Cheek as another church elder.
Though the relatively small cast goes about its business determinedly, the players haven't received any great help from their director, Philip Rose, and even less from their so-called choreographer, Al Perryman. Karl Eigsti's simple set, consisting of two sliding units, church and apartment, is functional and appropriate for a work set in "the early 1960s," and Felix E. Cochren's costumes are well-conceived. Shirley Prendergast's lighting is also smoothly managed.
The small pit band, arranged for by the composer and Dunn Pearson, is pleasant to listen to. In fact, all the arrangements - Sherman's vocal ones along with the dance ones by Pearson and George Butcher - are commendable. But the show itself refuses to come to life.
No musical that virtually ends with the funniest death-bed scene since Little Nell's can be all bad - and there are indeed one or two other things to commend the new musical Amen Corner, which opened at the Nederlander Theater last night.
The musical is based on an early play by James Baldwin - although not staged on Broadway until 1965, after the better-known Blues for Mr. Charlie, it was written some eight years earlier.
Its story is of a woman store-front preacher in Harlem, trying to keep both church and family together against all adversity - a derelict jazz-musician husband, long-abandoned, returns to die, and her teenage son leaves home for the bright lights.
It had its virtues.
Baldwin's point seemed to be that too many blacks use religion as an excuse to avoid living. Possibly. Remember the play was written more than a quarter of a century ago.
This musicalization, while adhering fairly closely to the original as I recall, is to some extent an attempt at a retread of Purlie, a very successful black musical some 10 years ago that, like Amen Corner, utilized the various talents of Peter Udell (lyrics and co-author of the book) and Philip Rose (co-author of book and direction).
The new element here is the music by Garry Sherman, a highly professional composer with - according to his Playbill biography, 40 #1 records on the pop charts and 20 Clios for TV commercials. This does not necessarily mean he can write a Broadway musical - and, it seems to me, in the final count he couldn't.
The music is impassioned rather than passionate - it all seems to be emerging from a jukebox we have heard before. Some of the music, naturally, derives from gospel, some from '60s soul, some from more modern sounds - yet the total effect is slightly familiar and over-homogenized.
But this is not the main flaw in the musical - the music could have done well enough, particularly when sung by the likes of the luminously exultant Ruth Brown. The fault is conceptual. The play - unlike Purlie Victorious upon which Purlie was based - rigidly refuses to open up to its new musical form.
Both the book and the songs are forever holding one another up. As a result you not only have one of the most talkiest musicals on record, but the talk is forever being almost irrelevantly interrupted.
Moreover the plot still seems vestigial. We never quite know how the heroine, the stern-minded, fiercely moral pastor, Margaret Alexander stood in danger of losing her church, thrown out by the elders. The relationship between herself and her good-natured genius bum of a husband, a trombone-player said to be up there among the very best, is scarcely explore, and even the son emerges as a simplistic sketch.
Simplistic is the word for the whole show. From the scant, extraordinarily unattractive settings by Karl Eigsti, which are two scenes on trolleys, to the gasping, panting story line, to the obvious characterizations.
If anything can save the show - and it was quite well received at the preview I attended - it will be the performers, smoothly coached by the expertise of Rose.
Rhetta Hughes as the Pastor, grim-faced, firm and yet in her way lovely, makes a perfect hell-fire martinet, and Roger Robinson, as the prodigal jazzman with the unintentionally comic death is absolutely superb, from his seedy charm to his creative fire.
Miss Brown - what a voice - is as delightful as Margaret Alexander's sister as the agreeably gauche Keith Lorenzo Amos (watch him try to smoke a cigarette - it's the best thing in the show) as is her son. Helena-Joyce Wright, Chuck Cooper and Jean Cheek are all naughtily funny as the comic villains.
As for the show as a whole, I suspect it will need a great deal of prayer to send it on its way to glory.
Book musicals are a dying breed, so at least let it be said that ''Amen Corner,'' the new show at the Nederlander, is mounting a noble campaign to rectify this trend. Have you been craving a musical in which the characters would rather talk incessantly than sing or dance? ''Amen Corner'' is the answer to your prayers.
Still, if conversation is a welcome antidote to the prevailing blare of our musical theater, it would be nice if the dialogue were spirited, if it took place in pleasant surroundings, and if maybe, just for novelty's sake, the characters moved about while chatting. In ''Amen Corner,'' the talk is expository, the surroundings are shabby and the staging (by Philip Rose) is the most sedentary I've ever seen in a Broadway musical.
For much of this long evening, the actors, not infrequently dressed in bathrobes, just sit on a couch or in chairs, sipping coffee or staring into space while waiting for someone else to stop gabbing. Some members of the company even thumb through a magazine, as if they were killing time in a doctor's waiting room. The audience is left to contemplate the sink and refrigerator that are the most colorful furnishings in the cramped kitchen where most of ''Amen Corner'' is set.
That kitchen belongs to Margaret (Rhetta Hughes), the pastor of a Harlem storefront church. ''Amen Corner'' is about Margaret's travails upon discovering that her congregation is in revolt, that her teenage son has lost the faith and that her long-absent jazz-trombonist husband has returned to die of consumption in her apartment. It's no wonder that the heroine takes a long trip to Philadelphia at the end of the second scene. Forced to submit to ''Amen Corner,'' even W. C. Fields might rather be in Philadelphia.
The source for Peter Udell's and Mr. Rose's book is James Baldwin's play ''The Amen Corner,'' written 30 years ago and seen on Broadway in 1965. Mr. Baldwin made a serious attempt to examine the double-edged role of religion in a ghetto community. The musical, which coarsens the characters into stereotypes, is something else. Margaret becomes a prig vaguely reminiscent of Sarah Brown, the mission doll of ''Guys and Dolls,'' and the show is geared to that moment when she will finally retrieve her sexuality and kiss her husband again. Kiss the poor man she eventually does - at which point he dies.
Even in its musical interludes, ''Amen Corner'' would always rather sit down - or, in the husband's case, lie down - than rock the boat. The songs by Garry Sherman (''Purlie'') and Mr. Udell (''Shenandoah'') are bland and frequently irrelevant to the story. Throw in the bare-bones orchestrations - mostly percussion - and it can be difficult to keep track of when the talking ends and the singing begins. The best clues come from the lighting scheme, which dims in a spastic flourish at each musical cue.
The gospel chants delivered by Margaret's thinly populated congregation actually have dance routines, sparked by three unidentified go-go girls who dash out of the wings any time anyone on stage threatens to shake a leg. If the dances are less than strenuous - they resemble potato-sack races at a church picnic - that's understandable. An early attempt at a kinetic number causes Karl Eigsti's tacky scenery to shake so badly that any further high-flying choreography in this show would constitute a safety hazard.
The company includes some forceful singers, but Miss Hughes is the only one who can act. At evening's end, she steps forward in her priestly robes and exhorts one and all repeatedly to ''rise up and stand again.'' There's real passion in the actress's delivery, but by then, little short of a second coming could rouse the audience at ''Amen Corner'' from its heavenly rest.