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Swift Creek Mill fills in the stories behind the spirituals in "I Just Gotta Sing." 

Holy and Homegrown

The traveling gospel shows that visit Richmond can be hackneyed affairs with one-dimensional characters and predictable plots. Still, they offer plenty of excuses to sing praises to heaven and they draw sizable, predominantly African-American crowds.

The Swift Creek Mill Theatre has been honing in on this audience for the past couple of years with homegrown musicals like last year's "Livin' in the Light." This summer's offering, "I Just Gotta Sing," proves a refreshing alternative to the traveling shows. Rather than using some clichéd fiction as a launching point for the production's devotional fervor, playwright/director Tom Width sticks to historical facts. In the show's ten scenes spread out over an intermissionless 90 minutes, Width, who also acts as narrator, tells the life stories of the men and women who wrote some of the world's most famous hymns and spirituals.

In most cases, illuminating the inspirations behind these songs redoubles their power, particularly when the songwriters discovered the power of their faith in the face of tragedy. When you hear that Joseph Scriven lost two fiancées to tragic deaths, how can you not marvel at the devotion that moved him to write "What a Friend We Have in Jesus"? The plaintive melody of "Precious Lord" swells the heart much more effectively when you find out that Thomas Dorsey wrote the tune after losing his wife and son in childbirth.

The stories run from simply interesting — "Silent Night" came into existence in part because of a broken organ — to the downright agonizing, like the unbelievable loss that inspired Horatio Spafford to write "It Is Well With My Soul."

Width has enlisted four towering vocal talents to deliver his message. Commanding the most respect is the matriarchal Virginia "Bee Bee" Young, who nearly trembles with the force of her faith, though her soulful voice never wavers. Jerry Davis also shines, exploiting his rock-solid lower range to great advantage in "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Showing a flair for acting as well as singing is Randy Battle, who adds convincing pantomimes to his rendition of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho." The always-exceptional Brenda Parker rounds out the crew. Though her voice has a stunning clarity that makes her "Silent Night" a heavenly hymn, she is not given as many opportunities to shine as I would have liked.

Musical director Paul Deiss has expertly arranged the show's songs. His slow, swinging take on "Sweet Chariot" is a surprising treat and the shifting dynamics of his "Battle Hymn of the Republic" breathe new life into a familiar song. If the pace he sets for "Amazing Grace" is a little peppy for my tastes, he is more than redeemed by the pop-music perfect arrangement of "I Just Gotta Sing," the show's only original song.

Width's set design is a bit perfunctory, with unidentified pictures of the songwriters mounted on a fabric backdrop. It would have been nice if the pictures could have been highlighted during the show, allowing the audience to match face with story.

Though subtitled "A Gospel Celebration," this production never reaches the revival-tent fever pitch the traveling shows sometimes aspire to. "I Just Gotta Sing" is less celebration and more tribute. But what a moving tribute it is. I guess what they say about tomatoes holds true for gospel shows as well: homegrown is better.

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