Seven of Johnson's sermons make up "God's Trombones," each one delivered by a narrator backed up by a lively a cappella gospel choir and acted out by the rest of the cast. The sermons are given for the benefit of a young boy who has ducked into a church to hide from the police with a bag of stolen snacks.
Visually, the performance is successful. The actors are well-choreographed and fill up the spare stage. They are helped along by storybook set pieces that drop from the ceiling: a magical tangle of branches arches above the Garden of Eden, and shackles drip down over the Jews fleeing from Egypt.
But each narrator has to compete with the choir, and both have to do their work under a clatter of sound effects rumbling over the PA system. The full-throated majesty of the sermons gets drowned out. We are left in a blur of symbols without a story, more pageant than play.
At the end, the little boy is handed a Bible, and as the spotlight tightens around his face, he reaches out and gives a thumbs up. It's not clear what he found so convincing. There is no question about the value of these stories in people's spiritual lives, but here we don't learn anything new from them as art. "God's Trombones" never makes it out of church.
"God's Trombones" runs through Feb. 14 at the Empire Theatre. $18-$25. For tickets call 355-2187 or visit www.livingwordstage.com.
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