J.B. Murray, the outsider artist and subject of the musical hagiography “Visionary Man” at the Hudson Mainstage, was an illiterate Georgia farmer who at age 70, after receiving a message from the Holy Spirit, began painting pictures of unbelievers in hell, was taken up by the art world and died a celebrity.
Murray’s story caught the attention of art historian Mary Padgelek, who wrote a book about him and then felt a call to stage it as a musical. Never having written a song before, she composed, in a matter of months, an entire score (with contributions by Dan Bolton, who also did the orchestrations), which in turn inspired Tom Coleman to write the book with her and direct this production.
Clearly the Holy Spirit deserves a producer credit for its role in getting this well-meaning musical made. To find fault with “Visionary Man,” I risk aligning myself with not only the forces of darkness but, worse, J.B.’s priggish son, Samuel (the entertaining Yorke Fryer), who’s determined to quash his dad’s proselytizing ways. “I’m So Glad I’m a Righteous Man,” Samuel sings, doing a stuffy, heel-clicking dance (amusingly choreographed by Ali North) to drive home the absurdity of his position.
But if not everybody onstage appreciates J.B. — i.e., a Greek chorus of catty gossips, played with wit and sass by Sequoia Houston, Stephanie Martin and Courtney Turner — the play’s good guys are all for him: his daughter, Sara (Jacquelin Schofield), the twinkly eyed Rev. Crawford (Ernest Williams) and most of all our narrator, Dr. Williams (the appealing Will North).
J.B. (the sweet-voiced, rather remote Jimmer Bolden) is undeniably lovable. Determined yet serene, he sets out to spread his grim message (hell is real and unbelievers go there) for the best reasons (our salvation), softening the blow with endless platitudes (“Patience is a virtue”). When Dr. Williams shows J.B.’s paintings to an art critic (Caitlin Gallogly), she asserts, “If something’s this real and true, it can’t fail.”
I’m not sure she’s right about that.
The songs in “Visionary Man” are pleasing enough, with interesting tunes, adventurous rhythms, strong harmonies. Even so, by the second hour, whenever the keyboard launched into another one, my heart sank. Despite their stylistic variety — gospel, blues, other — they had run together into one long, treacly sermon.
The same tendentiousness affects the plot, which while altering some details hews so tightly to history and to its author’s worshipful attitude that it avoids any actual conflict.
The most interesting dynamic, the struggle of agnostic Dr. Williams to understand J.B.’s faith, gets a rosy, greeting-card treatment that patronizes everybody involved. I was hoping to hear more about the damned in hell.
“Visionary Man.” Hudson Mainstage Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends August 31. $28. (323) 960-7787 or www.plays441.com/visionary. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.