News Column

Musical review: Western Playhouse's 'Mother Divine'

July 18, 2014

By Shea Conner, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.

July 18--Western Playhouse's production of "Mother Divine" boasts all kinds of Broadway-caliber talent, but this musical is at its best when one wiry local actor and one terrific Kansas singer are sharing the stage.

Derek Thompson (as Lester) and Betti O. (as Mother Divine) know just how to poke, prod and play with each other, and they treat audiences to wildly entertaining back-and-forths throughout the two-hour musical. Playwright Laurel Vartabedian created a great comedic contrast between these two characters when she penned "Mother Divine," but Thompson and O. really take off with the material.

O. plays the title role in this play inspired by the real-life events of Depression-era Harlem evangelist Father Divine. The charismatic preacher believed that heaven was already on Earth, and that his followers would live forever if they practiced celibacy and believed he was God. His radical approach to Christianity hit a supernatural snag when his much-older wife, Mother Divine, passed away. With his back against the wall, Father convinced his followers that Mother had not died but merely wanted a body more fitting of her righteous spirit. It just so happened to be the slender body of a 21-year-old blonde bombshell.

Keep in mind that all of that is completely true.

In Vartabedian's script, the story takes a fictional but fun turn as Mother Divine seeks revenge on Father (played by Randy Davis) in the afterlife. She uses a weaselly IRS agent named Lester (Thompson) to do her bidding.

Mother clearly takes some pleasure in torturing Lester, especially after he pestered her on her deathbed -- er, death-wheelchair -- during the "Death and Taxes Duet" in the first act. In that first encounter, Lester went to Mother's hospital room to get some information about her tax-dodging husband, who owes thousands to the IRS. Mother stayed true to her strong and sassy self, but it was clear that the sniveling Lester reveled in her panic. The thought of nailing Father for tax evasion brought him sheer joy -- until he got Mother so worked up that she croaked.

In the next life, Mother uses the undercover IRS agent as her voodoo doll of sorts. With one wave of a scepter, she can make him freeze, jump or belt out her powerful declarations. Thompson and O. have masterful chemistry. Thompson has excelled as a quirky physical comedian in other roles, like as Donkey in RRT's "Shrek" or Scuttle in "The Little Mermaid, but his take on the "Instantly Religious Son" (Lester's alias at the church) is his greatest work yet. It's part Steve Martin, part Max Bialystock and part Cowardly Lion.

O. plays the perfect foil to Thompson's crazy legs and frantic demeanor. She moves slowly, but she moves with purpose. And you better believe O. knows how to deliver Mother's saucy wisecracks.

"Father's gonna be sad he got that ASS-essory," she bitingly remarks after seeing the platinum-haired "Mother in the Second Body" (played by Megan Gill) for the first time.

O. knows her way around a fantastic vocal performance as well. After all, she's a national winner on "Showtime at the Apollo" and a member of the Kansas Music Hall of Fame. She lends a big boost of power and soul to literally every musical number she's a part of.

Honestly, there are no bad musical numbers in "Mother Divine." They may not be instantly catchy earworms, but they're all wonderfully sang with a '30s gospel flavor. The most impressive has to be "High Heels and House Shoes," a stunning tap number in which Davis gets to showcase his tremendous vocal and dance skills.

Davis charismatically demands the attention of Father's followers and the audience. There's no doubt he's talented, but many theater-goers may leave wanting more from him. Although "Mother Divine" is truly Mother's story, Father Divine remains a fascinating figure that piques people's curiosity. Yet in this musical, his character never really evolves until the very end. For 90 percent of the play, he's seen as little more than a dynamic, swindling orator.

His new blonde trophy wife never makes the kind of impact the audience desires either. In a play that skillfully sets up a revenge tale, theater-goers want to hate the hot replacement, but Gill forfeits the chance to ham it up as the Mother in the Second Body. Perhaps it's a directorial choice -- she was a real person, after all -- but it's not very satisfying to watch a usurper be so normal.

A lack of character development also drags down scenes centered on the young couple Arnold (Matthew King) and Emma (Alanna Lovely). Both actors lend lovely vocals to numbers like "Disappear" and "Something to Believe In," but they're both relatively subdued characters that the audience never gets to know well enough to care much about.

Other supporting players are given better opportunities to stand out. Equity actress Katie Kalahurka earns lots of laughs as the spunky, bizarre, mysticism-obsessed Miss Glo Ray. So do Thomas Delgado as the converted bad boy Prodigal Son and Mary Kate Moore as the pent-up Miss Bountiful Plenty.

They all get their moments in the wonderfully choreographed "Rrrumba," but there are other times when the stage movement plods -- especially in the play's outset. Another nitpick: The stage lighting is fairly dim for a musical set in a colorful jovial church. These may be minor inconsistencies, but they are noticeable.

No matter how much of the material is based on real events, a story as outrageous as this one deserves more amped-up schtick than most plays. Western Playhouse's production of "Mother Divine" is most enjoyable when it's over the top. Although it's occasionally erratic, it's still very funny and certainly worth a couple of hours at Potter Hall Theater.

"Mother Divine" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on July 18 and 19. For more information, visit www.westernplay

Shea Conner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.


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