What: "Lawd Ha' Mercy!!"
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount ROyal Ave.
When: Tonight through Sunday at 8 p.m., matinees Saturdays and Sunday at 3 p.m.
Call: (410) 481-7328
"Lawd Ha' Mercy!!" is the latest in a wave of gospel musicals achieving popularity across the country for reasons that seem to have more to do with rafter-raising spirituals and overt religious messages than polished stagecraft.
Like most of its predecessors, "Lawd" -- running through Sunday at the Lyric Opera House -- tells the story of a character who forsakes her church upbringing for wicked worldly pleasures, then finds her way back to God in the end.
But in this show -- written, directed and produced by Morgan State alum David E. Talbert -- something different happens immediately following the piously-ever-after ending. The Clark Sisters' Dorinda Clark, who plays the mother of the prodigal daughter, announces that the play is now over, and she and the cast are going to preach directly to the Baltimore audience.
She then proceeds to ask theatergoers to: 1) join hands with their neighbors, 2) bow their heads, 3) clap for God and 4) get on their feet for God.
Oh yes, she also teaches the audience a combination of dance steps she calls, "The 'Lawd Ha' Mercy!!' Sanctified Slide."
Without denying that most of the audience seemed to enjoy this as much as, if not more than, the rest of the show, it should be said that, at the very least, this is a novel way to manufacture a standing ovation.
"Lawd" also includes a few other questionable elements. Though the show is presumably intended as family entertainment, the second act features drug use as well as a rape scene, which, even with the lights dimmed almost to black, is inappropriate for young children.
A subsequent scene depicts a vehement argument between co-stars Jerome Benton and Morris Day, veterans of the funk band The Time, who are cast as a pair of unscrupulous record producers. Despite their underhanded tactics, these two come across as humorous and even cute until the final argument scene, when Benton shouts a profanity, which on opening night seemed aimed not at Day, but at a member of the audience.
Granted, "Lawd" showcases some powerful singing voices. In addition to the Clark Sisters, David Whitfield lends a strong presence to the role of a preacher, and as his wayward daughter, Katrina R. Harper knows how to milk music and emotions, although she seems cheated by not having a final rousing number to highlight her return to the spiritual fold.
Musical direction is by Edwin Hawkins, who enhances the on-stage voices with pit singers as well as instrumentalists. Regrettably, like most gospel musicals, "Lawd" seems to measure religious conviction in decibels. But then, subtlety is not the object here.