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September 4, 2007

Theater Review - Sing Hallelujah!

“Sing Hallelujah!”: Photo courtesy of Derby Dinner Playhouse The cast of “Sing Hallelujah!” gets Southern.Sing Hallelujah!Starring Debra Babich, Dustin Cunningham, Janet Essenpreis, Bill Hanna, Lem Jackson, Michelle Johnson, Paul Kerr, John Payonk, J.R. Stuart, Rita Thomas, Matt Wallace, Tina Jo Wallace and Cary Wiger. Directed by Jim Hesselman. Presented by Derby Dinner Playhouse. Continues through Sept. 30 at the Derby Dinner Playhouse, 525 Marriott Drive, Clarksville. For tickets, call (812) 288-8281 or visit www.derbydinner.com.There’s nothing quite like the Southern small town. Alternately immortalized, disparaged and ridiculed in various movies and plays, no one really gets it right unless he actually grew up in one. Billy Bob Thornton inspired incredulity in many with his portrayal in “Sling Blade,” but as one who was born and bred in a place eerily similar to the small Arkansas town in which the movie is set, I wholeheartedly endorse his depiction.That’s why I’m pretty sure Bob Payne and Jim Hesselman, the creators of “Sing Hallelujah!” — now playing at Derby Dinner Playhouse — are deep-fried Southerners.Set in Johnsontown, N.C., “Sing Hallelujah!” has a simple premise: a young new pastor, the Rev. William Higgins (Lem Jackson) begins his tenure at Shady Creek Baptist Church, and he’s welcomed — as long as he does not upset the little circle of members who have long held the reins. Occasionally theaters in other parts of the country that produce shows set in the South stage performances that take on a subtly mocking tone toward the characters therein, choosing to exaggerate Southern quirks and mores for a laugh. Director Hesselman and his cast do not shy away from thoroughly showcasing the inherent humor of this play, but it’s done with tenderness. To their credit, the cast seems to really love these characters.There’s Deacon Jonas Spalding (J.R. Stuart, who unequivocally steals the show), standing on a stool behind the pulpit (to be taller or to be closer to God?) as he reads the morning’s announcements and manages to mangle just about every phrase in the English language. Adorably, happily unaware, he introduces the new reverend as “fresh from the Louisville cemetery.”Naturally (for a small-town Southern church, that is), he has a nemesis, the self-righteous and highly disapproving Victoria Johnson (Rita Thomas). She, in turn, has her own lap dog, Penelope Pope (Debra Babich), who even gives little yips of approval to show her allegiance to Victoria.Payne and Hesselman have a knack not just for the phrasing and cadence, but also the delivery of Southern speech. One parishioner congratulates the preacher on his “short and sweet” sermon, saying, “It’s like Brill cream — just a dab’ll do ya.” Victoria, expressing displeasure at a group the reverend is considering to perform at the revival, exclaims that it is “like Gladys Knight and her pimps!”My only minor complaint concerns the musical numbers, and that’s just that, with the exception of the quartet (the exceptionally gifted Dustin Cunningham, Bill Hanna, Paul Kerr and Cary Wiger) and the deeply resonating bass of John Payonk (who makes a small but memorable turn as Harlan Johnson), they are somewhat forgettable — not bad in any way. Just not exceptional. No doubt, Derby Dinner will continue to lure large, enthusiastic crowds like the one I joined Sunday night. And we were laughing with the play, not at it. BY REBECCA HAITHCOATleo@leoweekly.com