Director Penny Marshall clumps past the ''No Smoking'' sign holding a cigarette, actress Loretta Devine chats on a cellular phone in the choir loft, and a symphony of construction workers' hammers fills the humble sanctuary of this ramshackle Newark church. Suddenly, a reverential hush falls over the room as four women walk through a side door and up to the pulpit. ''Whitney's people are here,'' an extra whispers in awe. ''She can't be far behind.''
Whether the star can really arrive, however, won't be clear until The Preacher's Wife opens Dec. 13. A remake of 1947's The Bishop's Wife, the movie stars Denzel Washington as a Christmas angel visiting a reverend (Courtney Vance) and his wife (Houston), who might appreciate some divine intervention. Pitted against formidable competition on opening weekend Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire and Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks! Houston is depending on the movie to fulfill the promise she has shown as a movie star in 1992's The Bodyguard and 1995's Waiting to Exhale. The Preacher's Wife, however, has been a perilous proving ground 13 weeks of production that seemed more like The X-Files than Touched by an Angel. ''We're under a black cloud,'' one crew member mutters while Houston, wearing a choir robe, prepares to sing for the cameras. ''We're cursed,'' adds another.
Although the movie's volatile production schedule was complicated by Houston (she would sing only in the afternoons and evenings), the diva was the least of Marshall's concerns. During last winter's shoot, snowstorms froze the cast and crew out of several days of filming; when they headed to Portland, Maine, to shoot a scene on an ice-skating rink, a warm spell left them standing on slippery, sloppy puddles. ''We were mopping up the water,'' says Marshall. ''And we had to make our own snow.''
And nature wasn't the only element bedeviling The Preacher's Wife. In New York City, robberies were a common occurrence in the iffy neighborhoods used as locations. In Yonkers, a building a block away from where The Preacher's Wife was filming caught fire. Some of the production's grips were among the first to begin rescue efforts, but two Yonkers children died in the blaze. According to several crew members, the weekend before filming began in the Newark church, an elderly woman broke her hip there and subsequently died. And during the shoot, a grip was struck and killed by a car while crossing the street.
''It was so terrible, so terrible,'' says Washington, who matched the funds raised by crew members for the family of the deceased grip. But even though the filmmakers' memories of the shoot are shadowed by adversity, the movie itself seems blessed. Advance screenings of The Preacher's Wife have generated blockbuster-caliber buzz, and Washington who coproduced and developed the holiday release is heavily promoting its family-friendly values. ''This is about making people laugh,'' he says. ''It's about lessons of faith.''
Touchstone Pictures is putting its faith in Houston's most bankable asset her voice. After playing a femme fatale and a successful single gal, Houston is taking a risk by playing a distinctly unglamorous mother in The Preacher's Wife. But she is one preacher's wife who sings like an angel. The all-Whitney, mostly gospel soundtrack's first single, ''I Believe in You and Me,'' promises to flourish on Billboard's pop singles chart, and the film shrewdly plays like a feel-good, $60 million music video for the soundtrack. ''That girl can sing,'' says Washington.