The title of the gospel musical at the Wiltern Theatre is now "Vinnette Carroll's Your Arms Too Short to Box With God." In the show's previous productions, Carroll's name wasn't above the title like that. Memo to Carroll, who conceived and directed "Arms" and adapted the script from the book of St. Matthew: Our arms may be too short, but your title is too long.
It's also somewhat misleading. With all due respect to Carroll, the real draws here are the stars, Teddy Pendergrass and Stephanie Mills. Plus, of course, Jesus--the evening's primary subject.
Pendergrass and Mills provide a satisfying contrast in star styles. Pendergrass sits in his wheelchair, singing in his plaintive, husky baritone, making the audience sigh. Mills prowls the stage, smaller in physical stature but with a huge, belting voice that makes the audience shout. Her rendition of "See How They Done My Lord" was the only number that brought the audience to its feet on opening night--until, that is, the inevitable standing ovation at the end.
The two stars are hardly alone. In fact, Pendergrass--who is simply a singing commentator instead of a character in the narrative--disappears for much of the second act. Singer Timetta Phillips shines in a big solo near the end, and she and dancer Raquelle Chavis do a strong duet in the first act as the singing Mary and the dancing Mary, respectively.
Then there is Jesus--an all-dancing role, played by Derrick Minter in a solemn, statuesque style (choreography by Talley Beatty and Phaze Farrington). Despite all the adoration he inspires, this Jesus seems remote, as if he prefers posing to preaching.
Much of this feeling stems from Carroll's book, which covers only the last chapters of Jesus' story. We see him suffer, die and rise from the dead, but we don't get much of a sense of what he taught or why his message was important. It's probably assumed that everyone in attendance will already know all that--this is a classic case of preaching to the converted.
Sam LeSane as Judas also gets a big solo dance, and while he performs it beautifully, the writhing choreography is a bit stale.
The sound is attributed to Thunder Audio--which accurately reflects the decibel level of most of the evening. More contrast in this department as well as in set and costume designer William Schroder's color scheme--all reds, oranges and yellows--might help turn up the drama. For the record, the music and lyrics for this version of the show are not only by the original composers, Alex Bradford and Micki Grant, but also by musical supervisor-arranger H.B. Barnum and the Rev. Melvin Dawson, who doubles as choral director.
* "Vinnette Carroll's Your Arms Too Short to Box With God," Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3 p.m.; Sunday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. $22-$35. (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.