It's not often we get two tour-openers here in one week, especially the first full week of January. Willie Nelson, who still tours frequently at the age of 77, is kicking off another round of dates with a show Jan. 7 at the Chavez Theatre.
Tyler Perry, however, hasn't toured in one of his gospel plays since his filmmaking career took off in 2005.
Why hit the road now?
He referred on his Web site, tylerperry.com, to the need to work in the run up to and in the aftermath of his mother Maxine's death last Dec. 8 after a long illness.
And in comments he made at the conclusion of Monday's debut performance of "Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family" at UTEP's Don Haskins Center, he referred to the "rough, rough, rough end of the year" he endured and the inspiration he drew from Janet Jackson. She insisted on working through the pain of brother Michael's June 25 death while on the set of Perry's next sure-to-be box-office hit, "Why Did I Get Married Too," of which he showed a promotional trailer before its April release.
That inspired him to take pen in hand and put on the wig, big glasses and dress of his most famous character, the foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, gun-toting, advice-giving grandma named Madea, who is based in part on his mother.
Madea, a well-known entity in black cultural circles long before Perry's film version of "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" propelled the character into the mainstream five years ago, is the moral compass in the plays in which she is featured. An Madea's family sounds like it needs some serious guidance in "Big Happy Family." They certainly didn't sound very happy for most of the play's often inspired, but occasionally sluggish debut at the Don, which ran three hours long, not including the 15-minute intermission; pretty typical for a Perry play.
The family matriarch, Shirley, has experienced a recurrence of her unnamed cancer and the muscular, hunky doc gives her four- to six-weeks to live. She tries to convene the family — including her three warring daughters, two struggling sons and a crack-addled brother — to break the news.
But they are so busy bickering and worrying about their own agendas — one's a real estate agent in overdrive, another a frumpy "old maid" at 32, another resorts to selling drugs to please his brand-name addicted girlfriend — that mom can't get a word in edgewise. When the family finally finds out her fate, it's too late to clean up their acts.
After Shirley's death, depicted in a lengthy scene that features one of the show's most inspirational songs (performed by Perry longtimer Chandra Currelley as Shirley) and a hokey video showing her ascencion into a cloud-filled heaven, it's up to Madea to set things straight, which she does with typically no-nonsense clarity and a lot of nostalgia for '70s R&B music.
It's typical Tyler. On the one hand, it's a bit long, rambling and preachy, especially in the less compelling and more disjointed second act, which didn't move briskly like the first one did. On the other, it's got the kind of warm hearted moral guidance we've come to expect from the guy who went from being homeless when he started writing plays nearly 20 years ago to living in a Hollywood-funded mansion.
It's chock full of soulful old-school gospel and a celebration of Shirley's favorite R&B music from the '70s bring the show to a soulful conclusion. It's got another large Perry ensemble cast (14 in all) with a few good actors, like cutup "House of Payne" star Cassi Davis as the pot-smoking, man-lusting, God-loving Aunt BAM, and a bunch of good singers, including Perry regular Cheryl "Pepsi" Riley as the dowdy ugly duckling Joyce, and a couple of young male singers he discovered on YouTube.
The key, of course, is Perry himself. He's literally a big, towering presence onstage, something his fans have been missing for half a decade now, and it's obvious who's in charge from all the self-inflcted humor. He manages to direct the play while onstage, fully acknowledging the performance's occasionally unpolished, dress rehearsal quality of the some moments in an otherwise inspired performance (which may be why press credentials weren't issued for coverage of the tour debut).
He often kept the audience, cast members and himself in stitches over his occasional interruption — in character, no less — for self-deprecating remarks about his own inability to remember his lines and his desire to "pop, pop, pop" a gum-chewing fan in the front row who was distracting him.
The tall, 40-year-old, funny and religious Perry — who infuses a strong dose of old-time religion into his narrative — also paused the show to tie back a curtain so the audience on far stage right could see better, picked on cast members for rushing scenes or missing lines, not delivering a line with enough conviction, and, apparently, eating Doritos when off stage.
There were plenty of local references tossed in to suggest that at least someone in Perry's camp had done their homework prior to his arrival from stage rehearsals in Los Angeles. Perry, er, Madea, who's never been here before, namedropped local strip club Jaguar's, joked that a character's $400 Gucci boots were made in Mexico (as opposed to Italy) and referred to Northeast El Paso when warning a character not to go back to drugs and gangs.
Through a handful of impressive songs, a slew of superlative vocal performances and the need to address topical issues, like the greed and materialism that have replaced faith in some circles, "Madea's Big Happy Family" was one big, happy cry for love, reason and Godliness in a time where it's needed most.