“If You Don’t Believe: A Love Story,” Michael Ajakwe’s new R&B musical built primarily around pre-existing Deniece Williams material, could more accurately be titled “The Romantic Janitor.” It’s purportedly a “Star Is Born”-like story about a gospel singer-turned-hit recording artist (Tatyana Ali), but Ali’s part is overly pure and saccharine, and Johnny Gilmore, in a secondary role as her janitor boyfriend, brings eccentricity and spice to a snappily written, offbeat character. Gilmore’s genial presence becomes increasingly welcome, because this latest representative of the “Mamma Mia” syndrome is long and repetitious, a structurally uneven effort to connect 1970s tunes with Ajakwe’s contempo script.
Show begins brightly as wide-eyed, virginal Lucy (Ali) belts out Williams’ “God Is Amazing.” Ajakwe’s delineation of her relationship with three older sisters, Persia (Trisha Mann), Ethel (Chante Carmel) and Spain (Makeda Tene’) has dramatic possibilities. Lucy tells them that a hotshot Hollywood record producer, Cedric (Kosmond Russell), wants her to cut a demo and also informs janitor beau Winston (Gilmore).
Winston is given some of the best lines, waxing eloquent with “Girl, you singing, me cleaning — we’ll be unstoppable!” He begs her to stay in Gary, Ind., and triggers a conflict that would have been old fashioned even in 1950. It seems he and Lucy have been dating for two years, and she won’t sleep with him until they’re married. Will she succumb? Incredible as it seems, the first act places heavy emphasis on this less-than-earthshaking problem.
When “If You Don’t Believe” departs from Lucy’s will-she-or-won’t-she dilemma, it sparkles with interplay between Winston and his equally hilarious co-worker, Reggie (Derrick Delaney). The story follows Lucy to L.A., where she slips under Cedric’s dangerous spell. Cedric appears to have impregnated half the women in Los Angeles, but disregarding unsavory rumors, Lucy moves in with him. She becomes a star in about 30 seconds, after performing in a studio with two background dancers, Jojo (Angela Jordan) and MJ (E’lon Cox). Both are inexplicably present at every recording session, presumably so choreographer Madonna Grimes can add kick to the proceedings.
Lucy, as conceived, is the production’s basic stumbling block, moving from Bible baby to arrogant diva, then sacrificing her career to be with boyfriend and family. Her decisions and outbursts have no internal logic. Although she sings “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” with soulful verve and displays star quality on a duet with Gilmore, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” she rarely projects the kind of fierce ambition that all stars fundamentally possess. Also, what can any actress do when required to blurt out, “Thanks to you, I lost my self-respect. Thanks to you, I lost my virtue!”
Portraying faithless, slimy Cedric, Russell is convincing, slinking around in black suit and black-and-white striped tie, ably suggesting a decent guy who just happens to want every woman he sees. Sy Smith makes the most of a standout second-act opener, “Do What You Feel” and attacks her bitchy role with relish. Director Ajakwe draws particularly noteworthy portrayals from Chrystee Pharris, Lucy’s seductive rival for Winston’s affections, and Trisha Mann, who’s warm, womanly and three-dimensional as Lucy’s sympathetic sister Persia.
The show’s five-piece band does a slick job with the score (although definitive, applause-milking climaxes are needed), and Sharone Blades’ colorful costumes help to define the characters.
A serious technical flaw lies in the transitions. Attempting to switch set pieces, each interlude between scenes lasts two or three minutes (17 in all), and the unnecessary breaks slow sequences down to a crawl. Nearly an hour would be subtracted if Ajakwe were simply to drop the props.
Too many ballads in a row also sap the show’s musical energy, and we’re left to ponder why a thrilling gospel finale and the sure-fire “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” are featured as encores when they would do so much to raise the excitement level if utilized earlier.