Shaping `Elmer Gantry' into a musical

IN a year of televangelical scandals, a musical based on ``Elmer Gantry,'' Sinclair Lewis's novel about a hypocritical preacher, has a front-page newsiness. But Lewis wrote his acid attack on fraudulent revivalist salesmen, embodied in Gantry, more than 60 years ago. The musical ``Elmer Gantry,'' which Ford's Theatre commissioned to celebrate its 125th anniversary, uses the novel like a ski jump to take off into something else. It might, in the hyped fashion of Broadway musicals a few years ago, be titled ``Elmer!''

This musical, with book by John Bishop, is really singing-and-dancing variations on the Gantry theme by Lewis, although it has a rousing score and bravura performances by its leads, Casey Biggs and Sharon Scruggs. But in tampering with the integrity of Lewis's basic plot and the character of Gantry, it raises some questions about expediency in the theater.

Adaptations from one medium to another frequently involve changes in scope and emphasis, as we know from musicals like ``Les Mis`erables,'' based on Victor Hugo's classic novel. But they rarely turn the central character inside out like a sock, as this one does.

In this musical we are left at the final curtain not with Lewis's Gantry, a charismatic but unregenerate bad shepherd who preys on his ever larger flocks, as the novel ends.

The musical dulls the sharp edge of Lewis's satire on fraudulent preachers, giving us a reformed Gantry, a pleasing hero. He refuses to sell out to the special interests selling the gospel like hotcakes and takes over a struggling inner-city church to replace its minister, his murdered divinity school classmate Frank Shallard.

In Lewis's novel, Gantry attacked Shallard as an atheist, tried to have him defrocked, and made no attempt to help him after he was severely beaten (but not murdered) by enemies. The musical ``Elmer Gantry'' makes Gantry a more sympathetic character, ultimately an appealing, if tough, hero rather than Lewis's villain and prince of hypocrites.

The musical focuses on one central episode in Gantry's life, as the ex-minister moves from farm-tool salesman to religious pitchman for a touring tent revival meeting led by the magnetic Rev. Sharon Falconer. Gantry glitzes up the tent revival's show-biz style; the crowds and profits come pouring in; and he and Sharon begin a torrid affair. But when Sharon later discovers she can heal those who come to her for help, she leaves him for the dream of her own church. When she's offered it in the musical version, it's called ``The Garden'' (as in Gethsemane), with its own picnic grounds, cabins, and tourist lures, like one of today's religious theme parks.

The commercial tie-ins are part of the vision of its backers, the money men of Zenith, who want to turn her new church into a secular business.

In the novel, Sharon herself builds her own Waters of Jordan Tabernacle as a summer site for her evangelical meetings on the Jersey coast. In both the musical and novel Sharon dies in the flames of a an accidental fire before her vision is fully realized.

The best thing about the musical version of ``Elmer Gantry'' is its star, Casey Biggs, a fiercely talented actor who converts the audience into believing he's Gantry, despite a casting drawback. Lewis's Gantry is a towering, brawny ex-football player and ladykiller, very much as the younger Burt Lancaster played him in the movie. Lancaster's snake-oil preacher, his endless white teeth gleaming, cajoled the crowd with his stump speech about love as the morning and the evening star (which is sadly missing here).

Mr. Biggs makes up for his lack of overwhelming stature by giving a really bigger-than-life performance as Gantry, supercharged with energy, ambition, and, later, passion for Sharon. He is a compelling actor with a fine singing voice, as he proved earlier this year playing Jack Burden in the musical version of ``All the King's Men'' at Arena Stage here. But there he had the essence of Robert Penn Warren's dialogue to work with, an author's support denied him in this Lewis adaptation.

Sharon Scruggs dazzles in the complex role of Miss Falconer, a self-proclaimed prophetess, who has invented herself from her girlhood dreams as the neglected and abused Katie Jonas.

Her uneven opening night performance had deepened and improved by a second viewing, with a more spiritual dimension that had been missing from the revival meeting scenes.

Miss Scruggs, blond, and dressed in long white robes with winglike sleeves, looks and sounds with her smoky voice like a cross between Bonnie Raitt and a fallen angel.

Several of the musical numbers in this show are bright, witty hits, among them ``The Next Town,'' a drummer's or salesman's lament, with lyrics by director David H. Bell and composer Mel Marvin; two gospel numbers, ``Shine'' (lyrics by Bell) and ``Saved'' (lyrics by Robert Satuloff). Gantry and Sharon sing another hit, the tender ballad ``With You'' (lyrics by John Bishop and Mr. Satuloff).

In addition to Casey and Scruggs, there is a hardworking cast, which includes John Almberg as the silvery wheeler-dealer Merle Blanchard, John Seeman as the candid Frank Shallard, Peter Lombard as the grave Lincoln stationmaster, and two terrific gospel singers, Queen Esther Marrow and Mary Denise Bentley, as Mary Washington and her daughter Epatha.

Under David H. Bell's direction, ``Elmer Gantry'' is a lively, moving musical but one lacking in a certain realism. The absence of a congregation on the Ford's small stage during the revival meetings contributes to this. The lack of realism in the crucial fire scene is particularly noticeable; instead of being tragic, the scene looks more like a walk into a rosy sunset.

Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's minimal 1920s sets, with their faded blue-and-white bunting and train station/tent meeting impressions, don't anchor the action well enough.

David Murin's period costumes add authenticity; the scarlet and fuchsia choir robes for the football spiritual ``When Jesus Calls the Play'' signal the entertainment hype Gantry stands for.

As Shallard says, Elmer Gantry ``kind of makes religion seem like a leisure time activity ..., not something you take with you, and go to church to have reaffirmed.''

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