Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
The Last of The Honky Tonk Angels
Somewhere in the space between Follies and The Golden Horseshoe Revue, you'll find The Last of The Honky Tonk Angels. In an old opry house slated for demolition, the ghosts of the performers who filled the place with song reappear - to plead with the current owner to rebuild the theatre to its former glory, and also to give one last performance. The show's music is not original; the tunes performed (supported by a three-player band) are already established. It's the sort of show that would work as a showcase for fading and new country western talent; with the exception of a single actor playing the theatre owner, the show could easily be populated by legitimate country western performers stepping up to the mic for their moment in the spotlight.
But that isn't the route it takes, at least not in its world premiere incarnation at the Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood. The cast is a mixture of honest-to-goodness Grand Ole Opry talent and theatre people playing at it, and the show is a mixture of celebrating the institution of the little opry house and gently poking fun at the people who worked there.
The show opens, for example, with Mayf Nutter as the "Rambling Cowboy," a washed-up movie cowboy who, after falling into an alcoholic despair, was saved by the opry house. Nutter is a Country Music Hall of Fame honoree, and one of the songs he performs is one of his own. Nutter's performance is simple and honest, and even though "the washed up movie star who turned to drink" might be a little clichéd, Nutter doesn't play it for laughs.
On the other hand, some performers overplay the goofiness of their characters, as if in a mockumentary. When we are introduced to "The Joyful Jaggers," a family of country gospel singers who "saw the light" at that very theatre, their fast-talking testimony sounds more like something out of A Might Wind than a real country western show. Similarly, Susan Lanier's "Honky Tonk Angel" tells her ridiculous story with so much overplayed angst, she can't be taken any more seriously than her overdone makeup and big silver balls of ribbon in her hair suggest. (An explanation is given for her makeup, but if we are to believe it, she should keep her sunglasses on for the duration.) And then there's the Joyful Jaggers' daughter Judy, the tap-dancing stripper. All are funny, of course, but it's hard to see them in the same show as the Rambling Cowboy. There isn't a hint of mockery in Nutter's performance; he and half the cast are honoring the old opry houses and the folks who performed in them. The other half is getting laughs at the expense of those people. Both are valid forms of entertainment; they just seem uncomfortable on the same stage.
And similarly uncomfortable in the same person. If there's one name to take away from The Last of the Honky Tonk Angels, it is that of teenage singer Alina Tatum. Her character (called "The Y.O.," so as not to give the name away) is a take on the perky child star. With her pageant-winning smile, red cowboy boots, and braids tied in loops by her ears, she is just the most sincere, cheerful person you'd ever want to slap. But when she straps on her guitar and drops down into her singing voice, it is beautiful and true, and there is not one moment that you don't believe her as a real country singer. Tatum has a clear, clean delivery that can easily sell a tune, and the speed and enthusiasm to get an audience clapping and cheering along. Her character's story is a silly joke (and one which she doesn't tell altogether well), but her singing is pure gold.
Other good performances come from Leslie Jordan (who also co-wrote the show) as Pee Wee Sparks, the old opry's comic relief - he is especially good singing the "D.U.I. Blues" - and E.E. Bell as The Professor, the opry's old owner and emcee. Jordan and Bell are particularly good together; whenever Bell sets up Jordan for a joke, he does it with the easy familiarity of two guys who have been doing this shtick together forever. Both play their parts with respect; they're getting laughs in the tradition of old opry house humor, not by overplaying their stock characters. A final character is added before the show ends, and she, too, is honest and even bittersweet. The Last of The Honky Tonk Angels is at its best when it sings and recreates the fun of an old-time opry house. If it lets go of its more farcical elements (particularly costumes and pre-song dialogue) and just sticks to its heart, it could be one heck of a good time.
Too Poor to Paint and Too Proud to Whitewash Productions presents The Last of The Honky Tonk Angels, a new play with music by Ronnie Claire Edwards and Leslie Jordan, at the Globe Theatre in West Hollywood. Call 323) 656-9069 for ticket information. Sets by Richard Wienecke; Lighting by Michael Zinman; Sound by Montana Johnson; Costumes by Red Hot Needle & a Burning Thread; Stage Manager Anna Belle Gilbert; Associate Producer Chad Greer; Producer Harry Prongue. Vocal and Music Arrangements by Levi Kreis; Choreography by Lee Martino; Musical Direction by Chad Watson; Directed by David Galligan.