nytheatre.com review by Joanne Joseph
Laurel Vartabedian, author of the new
musical Mother Divine, presented at FringeNYC by the Western
Carolina Stage Company, tells us in her program note that she has
pursued an imaginary "what if" from the factual story of Father Divine.
He apparently believed he was God on Earth, and was of great solace to
many followers in Harlem during the Depression years. The "what if":
What if someone could come back from Death and get hers?
August 15, 2003
The concept is intriguing, amusing, and entertaining. The first Mother Divine, played by the monumental Kat Williams, dies (The Divines, being God, aren't supposed to die), and Father Divine tells his flock that she has simply come back from the hospital transformed (into a svelte, very young blond creature played by Emily Slaughter).
Direction of the piece is by Stephen Michael Ayers, who also plays Lester, the IRS spy sent to bust the extremely profitable Divine cult. It would have better served this clever script if the director and actor were not the same person. Some directorial elements are wanting: cues are not quickly picked up, slowing the pace and marring the continuity; and, as Lester, Ayers lays on shtick a bit beyond what is needed to nail the character.
Sets, costumes, choreography (uncredited) and music (by Bill Evans) all are fine, and most fine is to have Rudy Roberson as Father Divine back on the New York stage. Roberson is currently on the faculty at Western Carolina University, and some of his students there are in this production, among them Bobbi Baker, who plays Miss Handsome Is As Handsome Does. The other Equity artist, Josh Cox, plays The Prodigal Son, in a comic pairing with Sarah Vartabedian as Miss Bountiful Plenty, a temporary virgin. All couples neatly end up in the clear light of day when Father Divine, to his surprise, actually does die, and wife number one, in the real heaven, achieves her revenge.
The Greenwich House Theatre is especially congenial for this well-conceived and unpretentious musical. I recommend a visit now. It merits a New York production for a longer run in a larger venue down the road.