Ethnic theater is rather like flying automatic pilot. In normal aviation you have a lot to worry about. Similarly, when you do Theater - with a capital T - the worries are endless.
When you do ethnic theater, you know what buttons to push to get an automatic response. Best of all, you know the audience came just to have those buttons pushed.
"Don't Get God Started" is a gospel musical, whose book is a series of naive morality plays, pretexts for the rousing, infectious score.
The music is performed with a zest and conviction that compensate for the predictability of the material. Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Be Be Winans are irrepressible singers, and Chip Fields does a solid job.
There is a kinship between the theater and three quite diverse human activities - a court trial, a political meeting and a religious service. And the more intense, more overtly dramatic any of these theatrical kin become, the more they take on the trappings of a performance.
The actual ritual of any religious observance is extraordinarily close to a theatrical experience, and not only did the medieval world, with its miracle and mystery plays, see the link between religion and religious drama, but the connection has never been lost on the more modern gospel revivalists.
Most gospel revival shows on Broadway - perhaps the best was "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God" - have been, in effect, staged cantatas.
In a purely dramatic sense the new gospel musical, "Don't Get God Started," which opened at the Longacre Theater last night, is more ambitious, although not necessarily better.
The difference here is very much one of form. The music and lyrics are conventional enough - being the fervent work of Marvin Winans, who won a 1985 Grammy Award as lead singer with the gospel group The Winans.
What makes "Don't Get God Started" a different kind of gospel show is the contribution of black playwright Ron Milner, best known for his play, once given at Lincoln Center, "What the Wine Sellers Buy."
Amidst the gospel imprecations and admonitions to mend our ways and find God, Milner has inserted five dramatic vignettes, all intended to show the decadence of the world in general and the rising black middle class - who it seems are not all like that nice, wise old Mr. Cosby - in particular.
The sins of the younger generation - much to the disdain and disgust of their elders - are demonstrated by three troubled couples and two sex perverts.
In one couple, the wife, a snobbish doctor's daughter, deserts her honest, hardworking, blue collar husband, and becomes a cold-slabbed victim of adultery, booze and pills.
In another the husband, before his redemption by the Church, sacrifices his life, family and honor to demon cocaine, while with a third, a good-natured but badly duped hairdresser puts her boyfriend through law school only to have him leave her for a rich white girl.
Other God-steppers are a comic sex addict, Silk, who cannot get enough of his habit, and a parishioner, Sister Needlove, who confuses Christian love with earthly love and gets the hots for the hot gospel.
All these vignettes are as naive and simplistic as the comic episodes in a medieval miracle play - but, as staged by Milner himself - they make their point, and are vigorously acted.
The singers are well-led, with a vibrant stridency, by Be Be Winans (another sprig off the family tree) and, particularly, by a glorious-voiced Vanessa Bell Armstrong, magnificently making that wonderfully important vocal connection between gospel and the blues.
Of the actors, the outstanding performer is the exuberantly brilliant Giancarlo Esposito (who might be remembered from his performance in "Zooman and the Sign") who is crazily powerful as the wrecked cocaine junkie saved by Christian forgiveness and very funny as the cracked sex-nut.
Chip Fields has fun as the wronged hairdresser, while Connie Marie Brazelton is most agreeably shameless amid all this piety as both the errant wife and needy parishioner.
The preview audience I saw it with was very free with its cries of assent and obviously heartfelt "Amens!," and individual feeling about the show will unquestionably depend upon one's feeling toward gospel teaching and singing.
Because if you yourself don't get started, from a pure entertainment point of view (if such a viewpoint is not irreverent or even sinful), whether God gets started or not is fundamentally irrelevant.
Late in the second act of the gospel musical ''Don't Get God Started,'' Vanessa Bell Armstrong, one of the show's two lead vocalists, steps to the front of the stage and announces, ''This is my last song, so I'm really going to sing this one.'' Mobilizing her considerable vocal heft behind Marvin Winans's gospel anthem ''Always,'' Miss Armstrong engulfs the Longacre Theater in the kind of passionate musical testimony that one expects from a gospel show but that until then has been sadly held in abeyance.
What makes the evening even sadder is the fact that ''Don't Get God Started'' contains no dearth of music. The trouble is that the singing is systematically prevented from taking wing. The songs, performed by Miss Armstrong and Be Be Winans (one of the composer's brothers), with a 16-voice gospel choir, serve as mere captions for a series of skits and sermons depicting black men and women bedeviled by cocaine addiction, sexual obsession and other problems, all of which are answered by a quick fix of religion.
As written and directed by Ron Milner, these little dramas have the depth of children's Sunday school pageants and the dramatic subtlety of burlesque show sketches. Often they draw out two minutes of material into 10. Making the evening even more interminable is the interweaving of these bits with smugly simplistic sermonettes delivered by Ernie Banks and Marilyn Coleman, who portray an elderly churchgoing couple.
The fearful, self-righteous tone of language that lacks any oratorical resonance squelches the jubilance of Mr. Winans's score, which consists of fragmentary hymns that rarely reach a joyous crescendo. Though both Miss Armstrong and Mr. Winans have strong voices, neither comes close to scaling the higher peaks of gospel vocalizing. Miss Armstrong's style, in which hesitant strangulated phrases suddenly burst into open-throated belting, is modeled very closely after Jennifer Holliday, a singer of far more range, depth and emotional conviction. Be Be Winans's gruff baritone carries easily, but he is no vocal match for his brothers, Marvin (the composer) and Carvin, who do not appear in the production.
''Don't Get God Started'' is designed to appeal only to the converted.