Despite clichéd storyline, these angels sound heavenly
|Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents|
|Honky Tonk Angels|
Review by Catey Sullivan
Bless his heart, but Ted Swindley penned a script for Honky Tonk Angels that’s just about as useful as boiled grits on a walleyed hound. As a straight-up revue, Theo Ubique’s southern-fried musical of starry-eyed gals seeking stardom in Nashville might have a chance. As it is, this dog don’t hunt. Matter of fact, it barely gets off the dang porch. Also: What in the name of pickled pigs feet is a song from REO Speedwagon’s 1981 cult classic “You Can Tuna A Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish” doing in show of Nashville’s greatest hits?
Despite a winning roster of country favorites (REO’s “Time for Me to Fly” notwithstanding) Honky Tonk Angels is all but done in by the barrage of clichés that Swindley has mushed into a plot that’s staler than year-old corn pone.
The trio of women charged with delivering this poor excuse for a story (Jacquelyne Jones, Leryn Turlington and Colette Todd most nights, Liz Bollar filling in for Todd the night I saw the show) barely stand a chance. That “barely” equivocation comes from the vocals on display. These ladies can sing, no question. But not even Tanya Tucker herself could overcome the tripe that comes between the singing. A bit of a wink and a nod might have helped here, but director Courtney Crouse has everyone playing it straight, asking the audience to take even the most ridiculous stereotypes at face value. While there is a bit of self-aware ribbing at a fella named “Bubba,” It’s not enough.
I lost track of the cliches 10 minutes in. Darlene (Turlington) is a pinafore-wearing coal miner’s daughter who grew up poor after Mama was done took by the fever and daddy lost his job in the mines. She yearns for something bigger than her life cookin’ and cleanin’ for her pappy and a passel of siblings in Apple Holler.
Angela (Todd, Bollar) is the self-described Queen of the Double-wide. She lives in the aforementioned trailer, saddled to a neglectful, boozing husband who leaves her to fold the laundry and raise a litter of youngins’ while he hits the bar with his good ol’ boys.
Sue Ellen is a career woman (you can tell because she’s a career woman because she has a briefcase and sings lead on “9 to 5”) in Los Angeles. She could easily and credibly bring her boss up on harassment charges (he does most of his harassment via text message), but instead, she calls her mama to complain. Sadly, Sue Ellen’s mama just don’t understand.
Then there’s the biggest cliché of all – the fact that all three women set out to make their fortunes as country singers. Anyone who has seen “Coal Miner’s Daughter” knows that’s a story that could be amazingly compelling. Not here. Swindley gives his sugary-sweet characters all the depth of a cypress swamp in a high summer drought. Moreover, the particulars of the story, or rather the lack thereof, are just plain lazy. Angela apparently has some killer daycare lined up. Sue Ellen apparently can afford to walk away from a steady paycheck. Darlene, well, her source of income is never mentioned.
The three meet each other at the bus station. Angela wakes up Sue Ellen (because if you saw a total stranger sleeping in a bus station, you’d totally go wake them up and start chatting, right?) and the two start singing. Then Darlene, who is hovering nearby with her guitar at the ready (because if you were lugging around your most precious possession in bus station, you wouldn’t bother protecting it with a case, right?) starts singing with them. Then it’s intermission, after which, we return to the three as they perform on the last night of their gig at a Nashville bar called (wait for it) Honky Tonk Angels.
Apparently, two of the women were just in Nashville on a lark, as they return home after the set ends. One stays, with everybody singing out to a mashup of the Yankee anthem “Amazing Grace” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” It’s hard to give a raccoon’s coot about the fate of these (barely) two-dimensional characters.
The acoustics in the No Exit Café are troublesome with this show, the vocals sometimes frustratingly muddied. That said, the singers are in top form, both as soloists and together. Their blend on the tight harmonies of “I’ll Fly Away” and “Calling All Angels” is exquisite, and when all three start belting the likes of “Delta Dawn,” the results are fantastic.
The fiery-eyed, effervescent Bollar finds the power in “Stand By Your Man” and delivers a take-no-prisoners version of “Harper Valley PTA” worthy of the classic song. Jones – who often seems to be conducting the ensemble numbers – gives a righteous, angry stomp to “These Boots Were Made for Walking” and a fitting lightheartedness to “Cornell Crawford.” Turlington hammers the guitar like a boss on “Fancy”and puts a haunting sadness in “Ode to Billie Joe.” Keyboardist and music conductor Jeremy Ramey oversees the twanging strings of guitarist Perry Cowdery and the thrum of bassist Alex Piazza to good effect as the band does its level best to mitigate the show’s shortcomings.
Adam Veness’ set design has the ramshackle, weathered wood feel of a no-name, off-road juke joint, and has just enough razzle-dazzle to evoke the glitzy bright lights of Nashville. Unleash the artists from the hackneyed plot, and you just might have something great.
Honky Tonk Angels continues through January 29th at No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood (map), with performances Thursdays at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 7pm. Tickets are $34-$39 ($4 rebate for seniors, add $25 for 3-course dinner, menu below), and are available by phone (800-595-4849) or through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Theo-U.com. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Adam Veness
Jeremy Ramey (piano, conductor), Carols Mendoza (drums), Perry Cowdery (guitar), Alex Piazza (bass)
behind the scenes
Courtney Crouse (director), Jeremy Ramey (music director), Cameron Turner (choreographer), Mina Slater (stage manager), Adam Veness (set design, photos), James Kolditz (lighting design), Bill Morey (costume design), Katie Beeks (props design), August Erismoen, Tony Migliore (band and vocal orchestrations)
Three Course Country Menu from Heartland Cafe ($25)
New Year’s Salad: Kale/Spinach, Black eyed peas, Green onions,
Bell peppers, Corn, Shallot apple cider vinaigrette
Open face Biscuit sandwich: Buttermilk Biscuit, Veggie gravy, Buttermilk oven baked fried chicken, Cheddar cheese, Bacon, Creamed Corn (Vegetarian Option: Replaces Tofu for Chicken, and leaves off the bacon)
Sweet potato pie