Two gospel musicals resound with joy and praise. `Don't Get God Started' and `Sing Hallelujah!' cheerfully promote spiritual values

Don't Get God Started Gospel musical written and directed by Ron Milner, with music and lyrics by Marvin Winans. Story and idea developed by Barry Hankerson and Mr. Milner. From Broadway to Greenwich Village, local playgoers are being serenaded with songs of salvation and choruses of praise. After preliminary stopovers, ``Don't Get God Started'' has come rollicking into the Longacre Theatre. This ebullient gospel musical is forthrightly dedicated to promoting spiritual values by making a joyful noise unto the Lord.

Author-director Ron Milner and composer-lyricist Marvin Winans have gone a step beyond the format of such concert-style shows as ``Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.'' Their upbeat, religiously oriented entertainment intersperses vignettes of black urban life with rich outpourings of gospel music.

Mr. Milner has described ``Don't Get God Started'' as ``a semi-opera combining drama, comedy, social commentary, and spiritual enlightenment.... We're trying to get back to the sense of God first, family second, country third, and the self organized around the other three entities. We all need to change our commitment from `I' to `we' - or there won't be any `I' or `we.'''

Mr. Milner's intertwined episodes involve the familiar evils of drugs, promiscuous sex, marital infidelity, and selfish exploitation of others. Each segment - dramatic or broadly comic - is followed by a musical interpretation featuring the highly stylized vocalism of Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Be Be Winans in solos or duets, frequently accompanied by a full-throated choir. The fragmentary scenes and musical numbers occur against the churchlike setting within which designer Llewellen Harrison has fitted the show's incidental locales. Central to the inspirational theme are Ernie Banks and Marilyn Coleman as a pair of Bible-quoting elders who provide spiritual aid, comfort, and rescue to both backsliders and their victims. Although ``Don't Get God Started'' makes no bones about the wages of sin, it is even more assuring about the powers of self-redemption. And while the musical morality play aims its message at a black urban middle class, the applications are universal. A preview audience responded to the show's message with ringing enthusiasm.

Besides the principals already mentioned, the versatile cast of ``Don't Get God Started'' includes Conni Marie Brazelton, Giancarlo Esposito, Chip Fields, and Marvin Wright-Bey, all of whom play more than one role. The production was lighted by Shirley Prendergast, costumed by Victoria Shaffer, and amplified by Scott Marcellus with enough decibels to drown out Gabriel's horn. Sing Hallelujah! Gospel musical conceived by Worth Gardner and Donald Lawrence . Directed by Mr. Gardner.

The Playbill for the Village Gate (Downstairs) describes ``Sing Hallelujah!'' as an ``all singing, all dancing gospel musical.'' It is also all strutting, all rhythmic, all swinging, and almost all exuberant. Director Worth Gardner and Donald Lawrence have assembled a sampler of 21 numbers divided just about evenly between traditional gospel songs and works by contemporary composers. The resulting entertainment resounds with praise and jumps with joy.

In addition to the exclamatory theme song by Mr. Lawrence, Act I includes Richard Smallwood's ``We Can't Go On This Way'' (``Try a little love...'') and Andre Crouch's ``Right Now,'' with a tricky quick-step movement. The traditional gospel repertoire is represented by such songs as ``Good News,'' ``Safe in His Arms,'' and ``Didn't It Rain,'' with pitter-patter effects. For a first-act closer, Patricia Ann Everson goes eyeball-to-eyeball with Satan in Dorothy Love Coates's ``I'm Just Holdin' On.'' The devil hasn't a chance.

In Act II ``Oh Happy Day'' had the audience handclapping happily. ``Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray'' features Ann Nesby with the ensemble. Marvin Winans's ``The Question Is'' soars in the delicate falsetto of Richard Odom. The second part draws on the gospel tradition for such numbers as ``Shut de Do','' ``Oh Mary Don't You Weep,'' ``No Ways Tired,'' and ``Runnin' for Jesus.''

Whether in traditional or contemporary works, the cast - Curtis Blake, Rose Clyburn, Miss Everson, Miss Nesby, Clarence Snow - displays a winning combination of joy and reverence.

Under Mr. Lawrence's musical direction, the singers receive vigorous instrumental support from a stage band consisting of Craig Harris (bass guitar), Mr. Odom (organ/keyboards/synthesizer), Victor Ross (percussion), and Michael Terry (piano). ``Sing Hallelujah!'' was designed by Kirk Bookman (lighting), Joseph P. Tilford (set), Otts Munderloh (sound), and Rebecca Senske (costumes).

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