July 18, 2011

KC Stage

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 to finish.

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 spot.

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 gbboyle@kc.rr.com.