We all talk about the spirit moving us, but the spirit at the Alvin Theater moved a mob of playgoers right out of their seats. It sizzled through "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God" almost without flagging, and the Alvin became a revival meeting fired up by a preacher who had Jesus in mind when he hollered about love and you in mind when he ranted about hell.
The chief preachers are singers Patti LaBelle and Al Green (who is, indeed, pastor at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis). If his style here is any indication, his communicants must be well on the way to salvation. Hearing Green lead a powerfully swinging choir in "Me and Jesus" and "Didn't I Tell You" makes you want to throw away your crutches.
"Arms" may turn into an annuity for Vinnette Carroll, who conceived and directed it. This is its third manifestation on Broadwayand it has toured the country extensively. It is a two-part celebration of faith and power. The first, by far the longer, segment traces Jesus' path from his entry into Jerusalem to his crucifixion. It is told almost entirely in song and dance and its essential sadness is relieved by a good deal of humor, mainly at the expense of the establishment priests and elders. The second part exults in Jesus' legacy.
Since this was my third viewing of "Arms," the spirit did not move me as far as many others in the audience, a sentiment which may threaten my celestial safety. For one thing, Patti LaBelle, as charismatic a figure as she is - and, Lord, she is - did not quicken my heart nearly so much as Delores Hall, who created the role, or Jennifer Holliday, who played the second version and is now a star of "Dreamgirls." The lyrics of the late Alex Bradford's beautiful "I Love You So Much Jesus" were unintelligible in LaBelle's mouth, as were most of the other words she sang. She took over the show as if the rest of the cast were a bunch of rug weavers and "Arms" should be more of an ensemble effort.
But maybe it doesn't matter in the end. The effect was the same as if she were speaking in tongues: The how was more important than the what. The powerful voice rising, falling and above all wailing, the ecstasy of body movement combined to shape a performance that is almost beyond censure no matter what one's personal reservations may be. At one point, she went directly through one row of seats in the orchestra and the people reacted as if they'd been struck by The Word. She had them. If you can do that, you can sneer at any criticism.
There were, however, other performances of a subtlety that LaBelle cannot seem to manage. Nora Cole as Mary singing "Something Is Wrong in Jerusalem" brought an intense quiet power to a lament for her Son, her low mournful tones reflecting the foreboding in her soul. Quincella (one name only) danced to the song, making graphic the sorrow in the lyric, Elijah Gill's Jesus neither spoke nor sang; his role was entirely choreographic, a lithe, sinewy portrayal that needed no word to make the flesh more expressive. The same applies to Ralf Paul Haze's "Judas Dance."
What "Arms" is more than anything else is a joyous shout to the Lord, comic despite all its seriousness, filled with affirmation and hope. William Schroder's set and costumes take us from a church with stained-glass windows to ancient Jerusalem and back again smoothly. The orchestra, led by Michael Powell, was spirit itself.
This edition of "Arms" is, if memory holds, much more flashily show biz than its predecessors. Despite its fervor, the first act - which approached an hour and a half - could be trimmed advantageously. But "Arms" is very much an "audience" show which depends heavily on a deeply felt response to its call. It seems to have it.
The revival of Vinette Carroll's Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, which opened at the Alvin Theater last night, is not so much a revival as a second coming.
Miss Carroll's gospel musical, conceived from the Book of St. Matthew with music by Micki Grant and the late Alex Bradford, has been all jazzed up. Some people will doubtless like it better. Personally I liked it rather less well...but it is certainly some musical stampede. There is a hot time in that old musical tonight.
The reason for the transformation - the new production is still directed by Miss Carroll, and Talley Beatty's original choreography has been restaged - is the presence of two major pop and gospel stars - Patti LaBelle and Al Green.
These carriers of charismatic chaos - to use a phrase that would doubtless warm the literary heart of Agnew's ex-speechwriter - rock the boat dangerously near the point of shipwreck.
Both LaBelle and Green, in their high-powered and somewhat competitive ways, seem anxious to leave the impression that their arms are too long to box with this particular musical, and are forever angling for the knockout punch.
Some of the show's original fervent simplicity survives. The gospel-meeting setting that develops into a re-enactment of Christ's life and death, and finally the triumphant asseveration of the living power of Jesus, still has its charms. There was a primitive truth here that Miss Carroll's concept and the music, particularly Bradford's, captured with theatrical certainty.
Unfortunately, while the structure remains sound, the present frenzy seems to offer as much fury as sound, and the sound itself probably breaks the Broadway decibel count.
Green is a singer always caught on the lingering point of ecstasy. His demagogic preacher figure shouts and jerks. Yet he has a strong voice, a commanding personality - if he passed a collection box round, the management would probably do better than by selling tickets - and authentic style and presence.
Miss LaBelle is even more extravagant. She has a voice like a siren - in more than one sense - and some of her gurgling notes, full of passion, strangulated at birth, are tributes to her lungs, larynx, and sound engineer alike.
The audience - at the final preview I attended - loved the stars almost to distraction, and as they wove their way triumphantly up and down the aisles, tried to touch them. One exuberant young lady actually managed to kiss Green.
For myself I preferred the less showbiz aspects of this demonstration of old-time religion. The comic trio of Come on Down, where Jesus is mockingly implored to come down from the cross, was sharply given by L. Michael Gray, Jamil K. Garfield, and Linda James, while Ralf Paul Haze performed the Judas dance with appropriate terror.
The performances are good throughout - Nora Cole also stands out - and the singing is magnificent.
This is not the show it was - nor does it intend to be. Certainly LaBelle and Green might win a new audience - but that audience might be advised to take precautionary earplugs. Man, it's loud in there!
When Al Green comes strutting down the aisle of the Alvin Theater at the beginning of the second act of ''Your Arms Too Short to Box With God,'' singing and shouting and testifying that Jesus has saved him and that he just couldn't keep the good news to himself, you forget that you're watching a play. You forget that the first act was largely a predictable reworking of the Gospel According to St. Matthew, and that Patti LaBelle's showy star turns failed to mesh convincingly with the gospel-singing cast's authenticity, passion and grit. You might even forget that you're in a theater, because Mr. Green transforms the stage into a pulpit and the play into a revival meeting. And he proves once again, after seven years in the ministry and away from the pop limelight, that he is the consummate soul singer of our time.
As it was originally conceived by Vinnette Carroll, ''Your Arms Too Short to Box With God'' was an ensemble piece, a chance for a cast of gospel singers and dancers to shine together while praising the Lord. The show's book isn't very substantial, but it doesn't really need to be. Essentially, ''Your Arms Too Short'' is a gospel revue, a succession of dance numbers, solo and group vocal performances and little skits that is held together by its faith and its evident sincerity rather than by its familiar plot. The second act is a series of intense, celebratory musical numbers that has no story line whatsoever.
Miss Carroll reworked ''Your Arms Too Short'' late last year to make room for Patti LaBelle, but since the show was so episodic to begin with, ''reworking'' seems to have meant adding, subtracting and reassigning musical numbers. Miss LaBelle has been touring with the show for nine months now, while Al Green has been added for the present eight-week run. These celebrated soul stylists are both making their Broadway debuts. But the contrast in their approaches to the material could hardly be more striking.
Mr. Green is a powerful but exquisitely musical singer with gospel roots and a gospel-based style. He is also a performer with a natural theatrical flair. Patti LaBelle is a pop singer whose spectacular range and drive simply cannot compensate for her deficiencies as an interpreter of gospel music. And her theatricality is broader, more emphatic, less suited to the intimacy of Broadway than Mr. Green's. She has to work at her role, and too often she falls back on mannerisms (a slow, dramatic glissando, the hammered repetition of key syllables) and sheer overkill.
There were several additional problems on the night of review that could easily be cleared up. Miss LaBelle's microphone was turned up to give her an edge over the other performers, but it only made her singing sound shriller and more forced. The program indicated that Mr. Green's appearances would be scattered through both acts, but instead he performed a short, riveting set at the beginning of the first act, closed it, returned to preach and sing like an angel at the beginning of the second act, and finally got to interact some with Miss LaBelle toward the end of the evening. This deployment of Mr. Green had the effect of throwing the show out of kilter. After seeing and hearing him work his magic at the beginning of the evening, one couldn't help anticipating his return to the stage. One anticipated it so keenly in fact that it was difficult to give all the cast's numbers the attention they deserved, and they deserved undivided attention. Several of the singers (particularly Nora Cole and L. Michael Gray) are distinctive, riveting gospel vocalists in their own right, and the dancers are superb.
Even if these faults are corrected, the production's deeper problems will remain - particularly the troublesome contrast between Miss LaBelle's glitzy showboating and the emotional commitment the rest of the cast, including Mr. Green, bring to singing and preaching the Gospel. Is one to conclude, then, that the new production of ''Your Arms Too Short to Box With God'' should be approached with caution? Absolutely not. This show's performers are singing and dancing and talking and laughing about something they care about very deeply, and that's worth the price of admission all by itself.