Theater etiquette dictates that one arrive on time. Tardiness disturbs the actors and other patrons — and that’s if one is lucky enough to be seated before intermission. Try to slide in after curtain at Tyler Perry‘s new production, Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family, and a 6’5” linebacker of an entertainment impresario will interrupt his own entrance at L.A.’s Kodak Theatre (where the show has stopped on a national tour) to castigate you where he stands — onstage in a wig, heels, and flowered dress. ”This show started at 8 o-damn-clock, now sit the hell down!” bellows Perry, cross-dressing as his infamous Madea character, to shocked latecomers across the room. It’s best to comply before she — oh dear, too late. She’s reaching into her pocketbook for a gun. ”I know you didn’t just say somethin’ to me!” Madea taunts, prop pistol cocked at the crowd. Say something? No, sir/ma’am. We’re speechless.
A multi-hyphenate multi-millionaire pointing a firearm at his own (infinitely delighted) audience is as sure a sign as any that this will not be an evening of conventional theater. The plot of Madea’s Big Happy Family is as common as they come: Shirley (Chandra Currelly), mother of five adult children, is dying of cancer. She tries to gather her bickering brood to tell them the news, but can never seem to make the announcement for all their petty squabbles — issues entirely familiar to those who enjoy Perry films like Meet the Browns or Madea’s Family Reunion. One sister can’t get a man, two others treat their husbands like garbage, one son is slow, and the other is torn between his ”ghetto” baby mama and his demanding, ”bourgie” girlfriend. Too much to remember? Don’t worry, none of it is all that important. We know that because by the time Madea completely hijacks the action in Act 2, trivialities like narrative structure are utterly forgotten. This is not a standard musical. It’s a carnival.
Madea’s Big Happy Family is also a church revival, a stand-up comedy act, a melodrama, a paean to Perry’s late mother, and an American Idol audition. Mainly, though, it’s Perry’s opportunity to look his fiercely loyal audience directly in the eye and tell them about themselves. While the rest of the family sits idle for 20 minutes, Perry holds forth. ”You have been tricked…by hip-hop culture,” Madea says to anyone contemplating selling drugs. ”That which is covered does not get healed,” Perry says minutes later, about sexual violence in families. Got a ruinous mortgage loan? Not working hard enough to feed your family? Madea is ”coming down your street next.” And woe betide the critic who sits front row, center, taking notes. ”There’s somebody sitting in the front row reviewing the show right now,” Perry informs the audience. ”I hope it’s a good review, but if it’s not, God bless you!”
Now, there’s a question, since Madea/Perry brings it up: Is this review a good one? Frankly, like the plot, it doesn’t much matter. Certainly, there are a host of problems with Big Happy Family, as with most of Perry’s work. Subtlety is nonexistent, the dialogue is clunky, and characters are so one-dimensional they might as well just call each other Angry One, Dumb One, and Thief. The show suggests that single women should be on ”suicide watch,” pits blue-collar and white-collar African Americans against each other, and gets six whole minutes into the action before making a homophobic joke. But for all Big Happy Family‘s numerous faults, there’s an abundance of charm. The vocal talent in the cast is tremendous, as we learn when the show abruptly turns into Slow Jam Serenade, with nearly everyone getting a chance to interpret a Luther Vandross or Mary J. Blige classic. The show is also funny, blisteringly so at times. ”Is that green eyeshadow you got on?” Madea asks her nephew’s stuck-up girlfriend. ”You look like the princess and the frog!” Perry then launches into a digression about the new Disney movie, lamenting that ”Finally we get a black princess, and she gets a prince, but he’s broke!” It’s jarring, but it’s also true.
Ultimately, that explains why Perry’s audience always walks out of his shows satisfied, critics be damned: They see their truth reflected back at them. As inartful and overbearing as he can be, Perry provides a form of entertainment no one else does. Like a modern P.T. Barnum or Flo Ziegfeld, he tosses in everything from melismatic gospel to ribald old ladies, social satire to sing-alongs. Heck, he’ll even throw in a black man in a dress, if that’ll entertain you. Just be sure to come early. B-
(For tour dates and information, go to tylerperry.com)