Country songs overwhelm script – a mighty fine thing
The best way to describe “Honky Tonk Angels” is to say that it is the live stage equivalent to my beloved “Classic Country Music” boxed set.
In a little over two hours, you’ll hear “Stand By Your Man,” “Rocky Top,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Ode to Billie Joe,” “Harper Valley PTA,” “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and, of course, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
The good news: These songs are delivered winningly and with flair by this three-woman cast: Jennifer Jacobs as the cheerful Texas housewife Angela, Emily Cleveland as the innocent Mississippi bumpkin Darlene and Marina Kalani as the tough country career girl Sue Ellen.
They sound especially sweet on the many instances where their voices harmonize in what sounds like an angelic choir, honky-tonk style. Right from the beginning, when they join on an ethereal “I’ll Fly Away,” we can tell that, musically, we’re in for a pleasant night.
The not-so-good news: Just about every part of this show that isn’t an actual song is a calculated, cliché-ridden Grade C comedy.
Fortunately, the vast majority of the show consists of, simply, those great country songs. Thank goodness, there are 31 of them, including reprises, leaving only a little time for playwright Ted Swindley’s contrived comedy and sentimentality.
Director Reed McColm and musical director Carolyn Jess make sure that all three women showcase their talents.
Probably the best comedic bit came from the wonderful Jacobs, who tottered out in high heels, a sprayed-on miniskirt and a Marge Simpson bouffant. Then she proceeded to rip into those “Harper Valley” hypocrites in “Harper Valley PTA.” McColm gives her some terrific physical comedy business as she attempts to bend down far enough to pick up a cigarette. Oh, the perils of the tight miniskirt.
Kalani’s showcase was a raucous “9 to 5,” a song she launched with flair when she propelled herself down a ramp in her desk chair. Kalani brought a welcome soulful and bluesy sound to the prevailing twang. She also has a confident and sassy stage presence.
Cleveland had a number of bright moments, including sweetly sung renditions of two of the best story songs in country music, “Ode to Billy Joe” and Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” If Sue Ellen represented the worldly country diva, Cleveland’s Darlene represented the simple, virtuous and innocent young farm girl.
Now, about that script by Swindley. Virtually no “hick” stereotype is left unexploited here. Angela not only lives in a double-wide (of course) and has a husband named Bubba (naturally), but Swindley can’t resist making her a fan of pork rinds, as well.
The puns are of the “without further hairdo” variety and entire swaths of dialogue consist of nothing but clichés. There are a few awkward attempts to interact with the audience. And then, at the end, things get sappy with a lot of talk about angels and following your dreams.
The script of “Honky Tonk Angels” may be the best argument I’ve ever seen in favor of the straight musical revue, which doesn’t even try to manufacture a contrived “plot” for the songs.
Fortunately, the between-song business is easy to ignore when you’ve got “Paradise Road” followed by “Delta Dawn” followed by “Amazing Grace.”
Great country music like that won’t let you down.
“Honky Tonk Angels” continues through Feb. 21. Call (509) 455-PLAY for tickets and reservations.