‘Elmer Gantry’ at Signature Theatre

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“I have principles. I just don’t let them get in the way of what I want.” That’s how Elmer Gantry—a charismatic preacher-salesman-womanizer summarizes himself. But, he falls for Sister Sharon Falconer, an idealistic religious fanatic who has a flaw, too. She wants to be famous and doesn’t care what she has to do to accomplish that.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer), Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry), Jessica Lauren Ball (Paula), and the cast of 'Elmer Gantry.' Photo by Margot Schulman.
Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer), Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry), Jessica Lauren Ball (Paula), and the cast of ‘Elmer Gantry.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

This is the basis for Elmer Gantry, an incandescent retelling of the classic Sinclair Lewis story of saints and sinners, done in brilliant fashion by the cast and crew at Signature Theatre. With book by John Bishop and Lisa Bishop, music by Mel Marvin, and lyrics by Bob Satuloff, Elmer Gantry is, at once, a fascinating character study, a humorous satire, and a smoldering love story.

The story begins with Elmer Gantry leaving his traveling salesman job, wondering what to do. Just then a religious troupe arrives and Gantry is immediately entranced by its leader, Sister Sharon Falconer. He attends her revival meeting where he becomes such an attraction that he is hired to join the religious group. He quickly makes changes in their songs and programs that result in a huge amount of money flowing in, and soon the signs advertising the “Reverend Doctor Gantry” are as large as those for Sister Sharon.

Perhaps overreaching, the troupe goes to a large city rather than the small towns they were accustomed to, but they are taken in by the city fathers who want to exploit Sister Sharon and Elmer Gantry for their own greedy purposes. The end result is a mixture of tragedy and triumphant determination.

Under the skillful leadership of Director Eric Schaeffer, the superb cast takes us back to the days of prohibition and the Great Depression and tent revival meetings. Beautifully portrayed by Charlie Pollack, Elmer Gantry is both a drifter and a grifter. He uses his salesmanship techniques to sell himself as much as his wares, and he is not afraid to bend the truth whenever it suits his purpose. Pollack’s gripping performance shows Elmer’s dark side but it also reveals that even a con artist and flim-flam man can feel true and deep emotions.

Mary Kate Morrissey is mesmerizing as Sister Sharon Falconer. Sharon acts like a true believer who tries to hide her ambition and deny the sensual side of her nature, and Morrissey’s stunning performance allows the audience to feel Sharon’s emotions, religious fanaticism, repressed sexuality, and love.  In sharp contrast to a backdrop of piety and pseudo-piety, sexual tension sizzles throughout the play.  hile outwardly fighting the devil, or at least pretending to be fighting the devil, both Sharon and Elmer are constantly wrestling with their own personal demons within.

Dan Conway’s scenic design is flawless. The effective set consists of a slanted wooden slat structure and a series of “tent supports” and the technology and scene changes are seamless perfection. An interesting and very effective choice was to have the orchestra upstage in a loft, instead of in a pit. Conductor William Yanesh is excellent in leading the 10-piece orchestra which beautifully complements, but never overshadows, the onstage performers.

Clearly, the musical numbers are the highlight of the show, including enthralling and romantic ballads, haunting blues, and especially the hand-clapping, foot-stomping, gospel hymns. Ably led by Musical Director Vadim Feichtner, the leads and the ensemble turn in bravura vocal performances.

Charlie Pollack’s voice is powerful and confident as he reveals Elmer Gantry virtually making love to the audience in “Night Heat.” In “You Don’t Know Who I am,” Mary Kate Morrissey’s captivating voice shows Sister Sharon as sad and sweet and triumphant all at the same time.

Nova Y. Payton plays the role of Mary Washington, a gospel and blues singer that Elmer adds to the religious troupe along the way. Payton’s talent is almost supernatural as she belts out “On the Road” and soulfully croons the “Should’a Known Betta Blues.”

However, the number that absolutely stops the show is “Carry That Ball,” which combines religion and football in a hilariously satirical way and has every member of the audience dancing in their seats.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington), and Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) in 'Elmer Gantry.' Photo by Margot Schulman.
Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington), and Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) in ‘Elmer Gantry.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

It’s been said that there are no small parts—only small actors. This was never more true than when Jessica Lauren Ball gives a really “big” performance in the featured role of Sister Paula, a sweet and naïve farm girl who is infatuated with Elmer.

Signature Theatre’s production of Elmer Gantry has all the elements that theatre-lovers value — a first-rate story, interesting characters, great music, and ultra-talented performers. A musical mélange of sin and redemption, Elmer Gantry is heavenly!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Elmer Gantry plays through November 9, 2014 at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call the Box Office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online