Sometimes you’ve just got to have a little faith. Though there’s more than a touch of familiarity in the early scenes of “Saint Heaven,” the earnest little musical receiving its world preem at Connecticut’s Stamford Center for the Arts, there’s also some smart writing, appealing songs and touching performances. With continued work, this under-the-radar piece could prove to be a popular product for small and midsized stages.
As the narrative unfolds, standard-issue characters gradually deepen, the story takes a few twists and what appears to be a basic love story becomes something more.
With limited production values for this bow, the show is buoyed by solid heartfelt perfs under Matt Lenz’s sensitive helming. Though not all the gospel, blues, country and pop songs have a sense of being special, several of Keith Gordon’s tunes stand out while others deliver the goods with professional polish.
Set in the 1950s, plot centers on Thom Rivers (Darren Ritchie) who returns to his rural hometown in Kentucky for the funeral of his estranged father, a doctor. The callow young intern shakes off the community’s attempts to get him to stay and follow in his father’s footsteps. Still, he is drawn to — and out by — a young black female preacher (Montego Glover) who speaks in tongues.
But Eshie Willington’s “gift,” which is a major attraction on the spiritual revival circuit, gives her immense physical pain. Thom diagnoses her tremors as epilepsy, but Eshie is reluctant to take the medicine that may also cure what makes her unique to her miracle mentor, Pastor Joe Bertram (Chuck Cooper), and their congregation.
Filling out the story are friends and lovers Thom left behind when he moved to Detroit: a no-nonsense ex-girlfriend (Deborah Gibson), a good ol’ buddy (Patrick Ryan Sullivan) and the family’s black housekeeper (Cheryl Alexander).
You might at first think you have sat in this theatrical pew before (“Abyssinia?” “The Color Purple?”). But Casella’s script — based on Steve Lyons’ unpublished novel “The Gift of Tongues” — deepens as the narrative develops. The pastor, housekeeper and buddy show unexpected shadings and offer surprising plot developments. Even the traditional love story evolves into a richer relationship. The musical has a nontraditional closing scene that is nonetheless soul-satisfying.
There are some wrinkles. The setting and the mood of the ’50s isn’t clearly established, and though the show is called “Saint Heaven,” there’s not a firm sense of place. The script could go also for more personal detail, comedy and charm. Most significantly the character of Thom needs a stronger arc.
Engagingly played by the boyishly handsome Ritchie, he now comes across more sweet and likable — understandable for a musical’s leading man — than arrogant, selfish and bitter. But that interp robs the character of dramatic growth and emotional payoff at the end, even though Ritchie gives it his all.
Character growth is clearly focused on Preacher Eshie, and the terrific Glover takes every advantage of those complexities as her character grapples with her faith, health, love and loyalty.
Cooper and Alexander lend pro support, the former giving his basso best as the blind and flawed pastor, the latter making the housekeeper grounded but with some conflicts of her own. Gibson and Sullivan are solid as friends from Thom’s former life, but their characters simply need better songs. (As the girl Thom left behind, Gibson could also benefit from somewhat darker shadings and a less perky perf.)
Strongest numbers of the show are the “Rent”-like “Breathe In,” the homespun charm of “Eat Your Okra,” “Not One Thing Tying Me Down” and “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Gospel numbers serve their purpose but do not always soar, despite the accomplished backup of the Tabernacle of Joy Gospel Choir from Stamford — which also helps to supplement the six-character show, not to mention the seemingly sparse population of Saint Heaven.