Even Cowgirls Sing the Blues
by Greg Boyle
American Heartland Theatre has a sizzling new production featuring
country-western music called The Honky Tonk Angels. The play,
written by Ted Swindley, who created Always
.. Patsy Cline, uses
terrific music and a lot of humor to keep the audience fully engaged from start
The Four Friends reach Emerald City — Lion (Christopher Barksdale), Scarecrow (Tosin Morohunfola), Tinman (Brad Shaw) and Dorothy (Emily Shackelford) — with the Gatekeeper (Nedra Dixon).
As you might expect with a show that has over thirty tunes,
the plot is thin. That’s just fine. This isn’t an evening where you’ll do a lot
of thinking. Much of the dialogue is exposition about the backgrounds of the
three eponymous songbirds. We meet them all in their original habitats, on a
tripartite set ingeniously designed by Del Unruh.
Angela (pronounced like a heavenly visitor) is a Texas
trailer park mother of six. Darlene is a dirt-poor sharecropper’s daughter from
the Mississippi Delta. Somehow Darlene also manages to also be a coal miner’s
daughter. In spite of the stark differences in subcultures, her family moved
from one horrific circumstance to another. Sue Ellen is a Dolly Partonesque,
twice divorced, Los Angeles secretary who’s being sexually harassed by her
boss. You get the picture. Every genre of country western music is therefore
possible to access from the experiences of these women, and it works just fine.
They meet coincidentally on a Greyhound bus to Nashville, and they join up on
The musical numbers range from the traditional such as “Will
the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Amazing Grace” through songs popular almost
exclusively in the 1960s and ‘70’s. These aren’t songs that you would have had
to tune into the CW station to hear. They are the crossover hits that were
played to death on everybody’s favorite AM stations. That makes nearly every
one of these songs immediately recognizable. The audience starts singing along
on the third number of the evening, “Stand By Your Man,” and never stops.
The performers all have excellent voices, and each has at
least one outstanding moment. Colleen Grate plays Darlene. Her character
provides youthful innocence, and Grate is great in her two tunes by Bobbie
Gentry. She gets to do both “Ode to Billie Joe” and “Fancy,” which speaks of
innocence spoiled. Her sultry lower range is a marvelous contrast to the high
notes she strikes in both songs. The smiling attitude Grate displays during
Billie Joe felt wrong to me, but the vocal still worked.
The delightfully slender Jessalyn Kincaid gives us a
prosthetically enhanced, sexually charged Sue Ellen. Her lead on “Cleopatra,
Queen of Denial” is absolutely red hot. The choreography somehow goes
uncredited, but the movement on the “Cleopatra” number, and the clog dancing on
“Rocky Top” with Kincaid and Grate, are terrific.
Much of the comic weight falls upon Teri Adams in her role
as Angela, and she wears it like a crown. This is an actress with a great
comedic sense, and a terrific voice to boot. Adams provides a lot of the humor,
and unfortunately some of it is regional and falls on deaf ears. Her L.A. line
left my wife and me in stitches, but no one else seemed to catch it. I guess you
had to live there.
Adams loses out on a lot of applause because sound cues or
jokes bump into the end of her songs. She gets the opportunity to make up for
it late in the show, though, during a hilarious rendition of “Harper Valley
PTA,” where she wears an outrageous wig and glasses, and gets to milk an
extended shtick until the audience is roaring.
Anthony T. Edwards does a masterful job of musical and
vocal direction. The harmonies hit by the Angels and the boys in the band are
sweet and complex. The band itself could be a stand-alone act. Besides
perfectly accompanying the girls, they play a song of their own to open up the
second act, titled, “I Like My Women A Little Bit Trashy,” by Cliff Wall. They
tear down the house.
As directed by Paul Hough and Jerry Jay Cranford, this show
is a real crowd pleaser.
The Honky Tonk Angels plays at the American Heartland
Theatre on Level 3 of Crown Center, until Aug. 21. For tickets, call the box
office at 816-842-9999, or go online to www.ahtkc.com.
Greg Boyle may be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.