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Gospel Music Rocks Signature's Stage

It's a good thing that the Signature Theatre is in a building with an industrial strength roof.

E. Faye Butler, who last rocked the Washington area as Dinah Washington in "Dinah Was" at Arena Stage, is now belting out gospel in the converted foundry on South Four Mile Drive that is Signature’s home.

She is starring in the world premiere of "The Gospel According to Fishman, " a musical that blends gospel and traditional Broadway. She's not alone, backed by a choir that stomps and claps and lifts the audience along with it.

The gospel elements of the show are thrilling and carry the evening along at a high level. But the show is also a traditional Broadway musical with a boy-meets-girl plot. Newcomer Tally Sessions is a young Jewish kid from Brooklyn, who writes the songs for Butler's gospel group. Pert and perky Ta'Rea Campbell is the girl he falls for, who just happens to be the beltingest backup singer in Butler's choir. When she lets go, the roof is strained even more.

All of this is in a new show by a new team, composer Richard Oberacker and lyricist Michael Lazar. They cobbled together an original plot (an unusual thing in musicals these days) about 21-year-old Alan Fishman, who tells his folks he's writing for Catskills comedians while he' s really touring the South with Butler's gospel group.

With the musical set in 1963, Fishman is caught in the center of the storm as the civil rights revolution hits a climax and a bomb kills four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

The story slips a bit when we are expected to believe that this young man could have possibly toured the South with an all-black group for two months in 1963 and still not know he might have difficulty taking a black girl for coffee in a diner, but it gets back on track rapidly.

The songs they have written cover a very wide range of styles, not just rousing gospel numbers, but a 1960s rock ‘n’ roll-type number called "My Secret," which Fishman writes for his girl — which could have become a hit for the Supremes. Lazar and Oberacker also wrote a lovely love song for the two of them called "This Feels Like Home." They also included some traditional show tunes. It is a varied collection, and there are delights for various tastes.

Signature's artistic director Eric Schaeffer gives this production both the polish of professionalism and the pizzazz that has become his personal trademark.

He's well-known here for his decade of award-winning musicals at Signature as well as on Broadway, where he directed "Putting It Together," and in London, where he directed "The Witches of Eastwick." He's now splitting his time between Signature and New York, where he's in charge of developing new musicals for a major Broadway production company.

That has given rise to speculation that this show may be on its way to Broadway. Based on the evidence now on display at Signature, it has a good chance of doing just that, given Schaeffer's reputation for strengthening already strong properties.

James Kronzer has designed a simple set of sliding slat doors, which works well to set up small scenes in different parts of the stage but opens up to allow the full choir to break out into stomping glory under the fine lighting of Daniel MacLean Wagner.

A fabulous band of eight sits behind the back wall, conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch. Karma Camp, who has choreographed so many great musicals at Signature, handles the musical staging here. Whoever came up with the idea of staging one number with the choir facing away from the audience for the first half but turning face front for the thundering climax — the effect is magic. But then, there is a lot of magic in this evening.