Tyler Perry has at least one thing in common with the ancient Greeks, besides knowing the value of a good chorus: He understands that theater is all about catharsis. With a roster of ills that includes cancer, crackheadery, death, old-maid syndrome, sexual harassment by the elderly, revelations of rape and concealed maternity, disability and the drug trade, Madea's Big Happy Family, the latest offering from polyhyphenate Perry's media empire, aims to deliver an exorcism for whatever ails. And at its performance last week at Municipal Auditorium — a kind of victory lap for its multimillionaire star, writer and impresario — even the small phalanx of ironists trying to watch the proceedings at a remove got bowled over.
Fans of Perry's films know how he crafts his work, blending just-this-side-of-vulgar comedy, rafter-rattling musical performances, family secrets, mustache-twirling melodrama, and the healing power of "covered dish" Christianity, whereby a casserole and heartfelt caring can fix much of the trouble of the world. He coats it with equal parts serious and silly, and somehow it all works. Such is the power of Madea — the literal incarnation of family that runs through many of his plays, as well as the cornerstone of his most popular films.
A rampaging id with a streak of ornery decency, played by Perry in an Aunt Esther wig and plumped-out dress, Mabel "Madea" Simmons devotes herself to the curtailing of foolishness by any means necessary. So what if Perry in drag couldn't convince a blind toddler that he's a lady? His elating — and to some, exasperating — gift is that he can make people respond genuinely to the ridiculous. And as much abuse as Perry takes from critics for preachiness, one-dimensional characters and head-on collisions of tone, he's pretty much honed his productions to a crowd-pleasing science.
After years on the gospel circuit, filling inner-city auditoriums like Municipal all across the country, Madea made her cinematic debut in 2005's Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and she became a national, polyracial phenomenon. But it's onstage that the character was created and shaped — and as the Municipal show proved from her first eruptive entrance, it's in that environment that she thrives. Perry onstage in his Madea outfit is a combination inspirational speaker, stand-up comic, karaoke hostess, preacher, jazz musician and bulldozer. And he is never less than captivating, whether dispensing knowledge, cracking wise, or demonstrating the proper delivery of a chokehold.
Much respect is also due to the dynamic supporting cast, notably Chandra Currelly (former lead singer of The S.O.S. Band) as a cancer-stricken matriarch and occasional Prince protégé Tamar Davis and Full Force associate Cheryl "Pepsii" Riley as her daughters, each with her own melodramatic cross to bear. Each gets to vocally throw down during the show's musical numbers, and it's a joy to see these veterans of record and radio having a chance to let loose on stage again.
Currelly has the play's most affecting moment, while her character slowly fades away from the malignancies in her body. She dips down into her lower register with an earthy tone that feels hewn by life's rough edges. Think Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life — that kind of power. Riley, long an anchor of Perry's stagework, gets a tender declaration of faith called "You Gave Me Jesus" and an abbreviated take on Mary J. Blige's "I'm Goin' Down" — an appropriate gauge for the range of emotions this Big Happy Family aims to encompass.
Perry ties things up with a bow in Act Two, serving up a wake that turns into an old-school medley. The de-facto soul revue was a masterful touch, starting with cookout classics, then shifting to counterpoint the many plotlines. The closing one-two of Lenny Williams' "'Cause I Love You" and Luther Vandross' devastating "If Only For One Night" was a punch in the solar plexus, bringing decades' worth of universal emotional conflict into the specificities of this particular universe. In this one gesture, Perry transforms what might have been crass and manipulative into something profound and deeply resonant. Melisma abounds, but so does that electrifying sense one gets from live musicals — that speech just isn't enough, and only song will suffice.
Madea's Big Happy Family, like all of Perry's works, is a lot of things. Primarily, it's a remembrance of his mother, whose death in December triggered the creation of this play and its current tour. But the bulk of the play isn't about death; it's about drawing strength from friends and family and tradition, and it's about reconciliation and forgiveness. Those themes are universal, and even if Tyler Perry's story is one of winning over audiences one venue at a time, there wasn't anyone in Municipal's sold-out audience who didn't feel among old friends.
As for catharsis, we don't exactly get a deus ex machina, but a character does unfurl wings and ascend into the heavens. The ancient Greeks would certainly have appreciated that.