News Column

'Mother Divine' boasts Broadway power

July 11, 2014

By Andrew Gaug, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.

July 11--"Mother Divine" is the classic tale of a person who claims to be God stalked by his vengeful dead ex-wife.

The locally penned, nationally performed musical follows the real life titular character as a ghost seeking revenge on her husband, Harlem preacher Father Divine, who is believed to be hooking up with a younger woman.

While Father Divine was making that, um, connection, it turns out that decades later, he's inadvertently brought together talent from around the country that has discovered their own links to each other.

Talking to the stars of Western Playhouse's production of "Mother Divine," being performed in Potter Hall at Missouri Western State University from July 11 through 19, you'll hear lots of stories of how everyone knows each other by some certain degree of separation.

"Everyone has their own little connection. It's almost weird," Randy says Davis, who plays Father Divine, a real-life cult leader and man who claimed to be God.

Those stars include Davis, a Broadway actor whose credits include "All Shook Up," "Peter Pan," and "Guys & Dolls," as well as national and international tours, and Betti O., a national winner on "Showtime at the Apollo" and a member of The Kansas Music Hall of Fame and the band The Exceptions, who have their own connection.

O., who plays the titular character, found her calling as a singer affirmed at the Apollo Theater, while Davis originally had heard about Father Divine at the same venue years later.

"In between shows, an elderly lady came backstage and started talking to me about this person who used to live in Harlem and owned half of Harlem," he says. "It was literally 10 years later ... that all of a sudden, I figured out this is who he was, what she was talking about."

Written by Dr. Laurel Vartabedian, the wife of Missouri Western president Dr. Robert A. Vartabedian, the musical is a slice of New York history, watching Father Divine deal with his real-life ascent to a beloved leader of people of all classes. It's a story of history that may have been forgotten by people outside of the New York and New Jersey, but this musical brings it back to life in extravagant fashion.

Loosely based on Divine's rumored extramarital relationships with his young female congregation members, "Mother Divine" asks the hypothetical question of how would the ghost of Mother Divine act if she saw his behavior with other women, specifically the courting of a younger female in his audience who he believes is the reincarnation of her.

"It's based on a real character, so for me it's the (question of) 'What if Mother Divine actually came back?' That's what I love about it," O. says. "To me, it's giving the audience the look of 'What are you guys doing? This guy, he's just a man.'"

Director Bob Willenbrink says it's an interesting character study, to see a person confronted with their own alleged abuse of their position and stature.

"His mere presence inspires things and he doesn't have to do much to get that power because he's there," he says.

While the musical was the only one from Missouri selected to be a part of the prestigious New York Musical Theatre Festival's 2013 Next Link Project, things have changed in a year.

One of the biggest differences, says Davis, who also served as choreographer for the New York production, is the music, which received a new direction from Colin Welford.

Before, it had overtones of '30s gospel and old jazz music, but little depth. Davis says that has changed dramatically.

"It went to the root of those genres. Jazz is born out of gospel, which was born out of (roots and blues) and it has a Spanish rumba-type sound throughout," Davis says.

He adds, "There's also the raw sound of voice, which is just different. You have shows where people are just like (does an "American Idol"-esque vocal run) screaming for the sake of (nothing). This has meaning to it."

While previous productions at Missouri Western, like the recent "Music Man" and "The Producers," have had solid vocal performances and laughs, "Mother Divine" aims at the soul, which is why the music was so important to nail.

"The music has to tell the story as much as the script has to tell the story. I think it does do that. I think the characters create the sound that creates the story," Willenbrink says.

While it's a revenge tale of a ghost going after her lover from beyond the grave, it needed to keep itself grounded and maintain a sense of realism.

"It's a satire, but it's a very realistic satire. The characters are based in real life, even though there are supernatural elements," Willenbrink says.

For the community, it's a chance to see a local musical premiere in a version that has never been seen before and, as more universities and theater groups come calling to perform it, own it as one of their own.

"It's one of the rare opportunities you get to contribute to the development of a piece. And there's a lot of people interested in doing the piece, so development is important," Willenbrink says.


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Source: St. Joseph News-Press (MO)

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