Vienna seems a long way to go for an out-of-town tryout of a new American musical, but hopefully that’s what the world premiere of “A Good Man” will amount to. While there’s a lot to love in this tuner about sharecroppers in rural Mississippi in the 1940s, the show desperately needs cuts and rewrites.
The major problem is a lack of dramatic conflict in Philip S. Goodman’s ambling, gently humorous, unrelentingly good-natured book. The plot — what there is of it — consists of the dream of poor, black cotton farmer “Prince” Albert (David Durham) to paint the shack that houses his extended family white.
Landowner John Tittle (Charlie Hensley) initially denies permission, but solely for practical reasons: He doesn’t want to stir-up resentment, and senses the townspeople would misconstrue the act as racial defiance. Rumors of Albert’s plan circulate and he soon finds his credit at the general store cut off and his patient wife, Louella (Amber Schoop), denied work as a washerwoman.
Subplots involving Louella’s infirm grandmother (Carole Alston), the romantic entanglements of her sister Lettie (Lerato Sebele) with the local preacher (Stephen Shivers), and recently returned war veteran Augustus (Cedric Hayman) are sweet and atmospheric but do nothing to further the story. Ex-convict Hardway (Alvin Le-Bass) serves no discernable purpose and makes a long evening even longer. Albert and Louella’s son, Cooter (Quintin Gray), becomes a significant character only in the final scene.
Whatever Albert suffers from his determination to paint his house just like anyone else, the consequences, which never seem that dire, are kept offstage and only spoken of (with one significant exception: After going missing for a night, Cooter returns covered in whitewash but otherwise unharmed).
Even Preacher Tom offers no resistance when his beloved Lettie announces she’s going to Memphis with Augustus. Instead he marries the couple, initiating the predictable celebratory production number.
All we see are acts of good men, and while the show undeniably has its charms, it is dramatically impotent.
Certainly this is no fault of composer Ray Leslee, whose tuneful score, performed by the Wiener Kammeroper Orchestra, blazes with roof-raising gospel numbers, rock-influenced folk tunes, harmonica-laced blues and introspective torch songs. Albert’s dream of a “White House,” his ringing assertion “I Got a Right,” and the valedictory “Wheel Come Round” are reason enough for the show to be given a chance, but too many of the 20 songs feel like filler (especially “The Numbers Game,” sung by the extraneous Hardway).
The show could benefit from a book tightened and revised to add some punch and could lose about half an hour, mainly from its unfocused and overlong second act.
Getting the shortest shrift is Granny, who, as the daughter of a slave, would seem to have more to offer than comic relief and one measly song (not one of the better ones) before her inevitable death at the beginning of act two and the subsequent extended funeral sequence.
Durham’s vulnerable, committed Albert provides the heart of the show, his generous, resonant baritone a constant joy, especially in the supremely moving “White House.” Strong support is provided by Hayman as Augustus in his funky paean to high heels in “Long Brown Woman”; Sebele, who lets loose with some Patti LaBelle high notes as Lettie; Alston as the earthy Granny; Schoop as the long-suffering Louella; and Hensley as crotchety but affable Tittle.
Director Esther Muschol does what she can with Thomas Goerge’s claustrophobic set on Kammeroper’s postage-stamp stage.
In its message of equality, “A Good Man” in many ways echoes “A Raisin in the Sun,” but with its evocation of a distant, more innocent time, the show lacks the urgency of the following decades in which an all-out battle for equal rights was fought.