Vanessa and Jeremiah Gamble have their hearts in the right place — which in this day and age counts for something. The St. Paul theater artists have created a musical, "Sam's Son," that makes an earnest polemic against hypocrisy.
Speak the truth. Shine the light on yourself. Commit to an honest life. Respect your neighbors. Admit your flaws and ask forgiveness.
How do you argue with that?
The Gambles, under the aegis of Bucket Brigade, opened "Sam's Son" on Friday at Art House North, a funky old church off W. 7th Street in St. Paul. It's an appropriate venue, given the strong sense of morality and decency that always has imbued the couple's work.
"Sam's Son" nods to the biblical hero in the purpose of the musical's title character. All the townspeople know Sam Jr. (Trevor Bunce) for his legendary strength. His father (portrayed by Jeremiah Gamble) is a preacher — a wiry, righteous man committed to maintaining "the driest town anywhere" during Prohibition.
The folk, led by actors Pete Colburn and Bonni Allen, are all smiles and "amens" when the Rev. Sam Sr. thumps his Bible.
Federal agent Miriam Rosenberg (Vanessa Gamble) starts to chip away at the patina, convinced there is moonshine being distilled in this pious river town. Her daughter, Della (Kayla Peters), serves as Sam Jr.'s Delilah — luring him away from the straight and narrow.
Things happen, alcohol causes bad decisions (what!?), tragedy hits and everyone is forced to take a sober look at the lies that have been the town's scaffolding.
As sincere and worthy as the message is, "Sam's Son" wobbles as a musical. Dramatic shortcuts, red herrings and uncertain character portraits leach energy from Jeremiah Gamble's script. Vanessa Gamble's music spans several styles (both a strength and weakness). Michael Pearce Donley, as arranger and pianist in the three-piece shuffle band, helps immensely to accent and smooth things out.
Director Sean Byrd understands the universe the Gambles have created, yet he can't paper over the flaws in the script. This resulted, on opening night, in a less-than-crisp performance. Allen and Colburn have strong points of view in approaching their characters. Vanessa Gamble, similarly, focuses sharply on the rigid carriage of Miriam. Jeremiah Gamble seems to want the reverend to be a nice guy with not much backbone, which makes him weak and less interesting. Bunce can't carry the center of the play, and for some reason Peters (maybe because she's rebellious?) seems to have time-traveled from the 1970s to Prohibition.
"Sam's Son" is undercooked and not fully realized as a piece of theater. Yes, its heart is there, but we need better dramatics to really feel that passion.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.