Tyler Perry has his formula down.
His films, television shows, musicals and plays are shrewdly calibrated sitcom sermons, combining the spiritual uplift of a Sunday morning church service with the lowbrow comedy of a street-savvy stand-up act.
Perry's most famous creation is the force of nature known to fans around the world as Madea, the wise but grizzled grandmother-with-an-attitude whom Perry portrays in a very self-conscious form of drag. Madea and Perry made their first appearance in Buffalo on Thursday night in his latest production, "Madea Gets a Job," which played to an enraptured First Niagara Center crowd.
The show follows the employees and residents of a state-run nursing home as they are joined by the recently incarcerated Madea, who reluctantly arrives to perform her 20 hours of community service and ends up contributing far more. Like many Perry stage productions, it sits in an awkward space between a play and a musical, employing the seasoned voices of its gifted cast sparingly and focusing most of its efforts on Perry's bite-sized lessons on life and faith.
For the Perry faithful, shows like "Madea Gets a Job" provide a needed dose of spiritual reassurance, coupled with an acknowledgment of the struggles urban black communities face, a mixture that is all too rare in the mainstream media -- all while being wildly irreverent.
For the uninitiated, the key to enjoying a Perry product -- whether on TBS or in the cavernous First Niagara Center -- is to understand beforehand that it exists primarily as a delivery system for his spiritual message. To call his productions preachy is to miss the point that he is, in all but technical terms, a preacher. Even if you're not a person of faith, it's still possible to get a lot out of his work.
The show is never better than when Perry's Madea goes on a tear, either about her previous work as a pimp's secretary or when pretending to listen to his overseers at the nursing home. Perry often breaks the fourth wall, calling attention to latecomers and pretending to forget lines -- which is charming, but only up to a point.
So as not to seem too self-serious, Perry often tempers Madea's mini-sermons with perfectly timed asides. In one such instance, Madea talks very seriously about the need to give ex-prisoners a second chance in life, because everyone deserves second chances. When the crowd applauds in approval, she quips: "If you're sitting next to somebody who's clapping right now, watch your purse, because they just got out of jail." And the crowd goes wild.
The first act of "Madea Goes to Jail," where garden variety conflicts are set up and Madea is at her worst behaved, is a riot. And though the second act descends into message mode, it contains some of the better vocal performances by the likes of the veteran R&B singer Cheryl Pepsii Riley, Patrice Lovely and Tony Grant.
The show also contains some deeply moving songs dealing with the struggles of growing old, dealing with abandonment and reconciling past errors. We can be thankful that those universal human concerns are also part of Perry's formula.
"Tyler Perry's Madea Gets a Job"
3 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Thursday evening
WHERE: First Niagara Center