God's Trombones is based on the writings of James Weldon Johnson, one of the giants of African-American cultural history. Johnson, a novelist, poet and activist, authored these seven poems, each of them an homage to the tradition of the old-time Negro preacher. Inspired by classic African-American sermons, his verses recast familiar Bible stories as pulpit-pounding sermons that, in this musical translation, are dressed with pop melodies and rhythmic dancers. "The Creation," "The Prodigal Son" and "Noah Built the Ark" are intended to transport us musically to the traditional black churches of the South.
The presentation is as worshipful of traditional African-American religious orators as it is of God, and its language is lifted directly from Scripture. But the prerecorded, jarringly noisy hip-hop music and canned choreography are strictly up-to-the-minute. Therein lies the problem: The musical's unnamed translators have bungled an attempt to relay Biblical messages in a modern, African-American cultural context by packaging the sights and sounds too neatly.
The show's score is lousy with synthetic disco songs, each propelled by handclap machines and lifeless techno rhythms that render one indistinguishable from the next. Well-executed but bland ballet and jazz routines that always seem to end with a line of lovelies writhing in torn tunics accompany these numbing numbers. That is to say, when they finally end; Trombones' boogies are interminable. The Noah's Ark number feels like 40 days and nights. The result of all this excess is a production that's as charming as a Claymation video, one of the more unfortunate forms into which God's Trombones has been recently translated.
Black Theatre Troupe's typical eleventh-hour recasting probably didn't help the production. The company, known for its last-minute replacements, switched Trombones directors during rehearsal and, on opening night, had replaced the show's star (BTT co-founder Sandra Kennedy) with two other performers. Four additional changes were made to cast and crew shortly before the curtain came up.
Despite all the reshuffling and the ponderous presentation, several cast members manage attractive performances. A singer named Malaika Sallard adds a superb solo to "The Prodigal Son," and Rod Ambrose's reading of "The Crucifixion" is positively riveting.
But these are points of light in an otherwise dim and dreary show. I was more entertained by Michael J. Eddy's evocative lighting design -- which splashes the set with the garish colors of stained glass -- than with much of what was taking place around it. While I've grown accustomed to BTT audiences yelling encouragement to the players and shouting out "Amen!" after particularly rousing musical numbers, the opening night audience for God's Trombones was noticeably restrained. Perhaps it was as baffled and unmoved as I was over this fusty fusion of gospel and rap music.