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Elmer Gantry

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ELMER GANTRY, Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre. Loosely based on Sinclair Lewis's 1927 novel about religious hypocrisy, this evolving 1988 musical has played twice at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. Continuing its ten-year trek, Elmer Gantry receives--even if it doesn't deserve--a sturdy staging by D.C. director Eric D. Schaeffer.

Telling the story of a tank-town Holy Roller and the woman he "converts," Lewis lampoons pre-TV evangelists who saved souls for quick profits town by town. But con man Elmer finds his salvation when he meets the righteous Sister Sharon, building her into another Sister Aimee Semple McPherson. When Sharon gets caught up in a big-city real estate scam, Elmer learns that his true calling is healing the faith. Amen.

A cross between The Music Man and a Promise Keepers rally, the musical soft-pedals Lewis's expose of money-grubbing pulpit pounders. Confusing and, in the second act, dull and cluttered, the script promises developments that never come, and Elmer's transformation from snake oil salesman to true believer is as vague as Sister Sharon's supposed corruption. Mel Marvin's score opens with a salute to Aaron Copland but settles for a strange mix of country-western ballads, gospel anthems, and easy-listening pop. It's capably handled by handsome Tom Zemon as the enigmatic Elmer and charismatic Kerry O'Malley as soulful Sharon. But despite the heavenly cast, Gantry's exposure or exaltation hardly matters: the juices don't flow. Fortunately there's still the film. --Lawrence Bommer

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