Thursday, February 5, 2015

"Miss Firecracker" Lights Up the Stage at Germantown Community Theatre

Posted By on Thu, Feb 5, 2015 at 1:59 PM

click to enlarge miss-firecracker-contestfinaljpg.jpg

I’m not exactly a fan of Beth Henley's 1984 comedy The Miss Firecracker Contest, although I do have a soft spot for the show, and fond memories of its long-ago Memphis premiere. The script's too contrived, too mechanical. And no matter how much I may enjoy the antic bits and surreal set pieces, Henley's screwball romance never seems to go anywhere. Maybe it’s Chekhovian in that regard, but never as substantial or satisfying.

Henley’s storycraft may be pat, but she’s a genius when it comes to memorable, unexpected moments. And to borrow a feel-good line from countless forgettable romantic comedies, sometimes the journey really is the destination. And seriously, when’s the last time you sat through a feel-good comedy laden with so many over-the-top stories about terrible deaths and hideous deformities?

With diversions touching on everything from malformed kittens and midgets to terrifying dreams of female dismemberment and mutilation, Firecracker tells the "bless-her-heart" story of Carnelle, a "Delta Dawn" in training, pinning what’s left of her tattered, tarted-up self-worth, on the outcome of a small town beauty contest. She’s an orphan, raised by relatives, living alone in the ancestral manse and working on a patriotic tap routine to be performed with Roman candles. Carnelle yearns to ditch her current title, Miss Hot Tamale, an honor unceremoniously bestowed upon her by the mean boys (and girls) of Brookhaven, and roll out of Mississippi in a red, white, and blue blaze of glory. She’s been messed up, but she’s working things out.

Carnelle shares the stage with cousins Elain (who’s left her husband… and all her beautiful clocks), and Delmount, an unhinged Tom Wingfield type, who’s in and out of trouble but longs to settle down and study philosophy so he can finally tell people why we’re here. They’re joined in mutual Southern Gothic silliness by Popeye, a an oddball Southern seamstress, Mac Sam, a randy carnival roustabout with the clap, and busybody pageant organizer named Tessy Mahoney. Each character is somehow imprisoned by economic circumstances, tyrannizing ideas, and societal expectation. Only the sickly, hard-drinking Mac Sam counts himself a king of infinite space.

Germantown Community Theatre wants to step up its game. The teenincy east-side playhouse has expanded its lobby, and built what, at first glance, seems to be a more actor and tech-friendly stage. And, while this revival of Miss Firecracker, may miss some marks here and there, it really fits the space, both physically and tonally. It made me wonder why, for all of its shortcomings, the show hadn’t been revived in Memphis in almost 30-years.

As much as I like what’s been done with the GCT space, it might have been interesting to take things a step further and experiment with less representational scenic design. Not to play backseat director, but simply taking away solid walls and leaving old photos (and maybe some clocks) floating in the background like ghosts, might help the audience transition visually into a less representational second act, where an unchanging circus tent backdrop currently makes it difficult to know where the actors are playing from scene to vaguely-defined scene. Oh well, baby steps.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if GCT's cast members are inhabiting their characters or judging them, however sympathetically. And for all the good humor and laughs, this Miss Firecracker misses a number of emotional marks along the way. Jenny Smith, Shawna Lei Gardner, and Rebecca Lipscomb all turn in nicely crafted performances, but the only sparkler on this stage is Meredith Koch, as TCB pageant coordinator Tessy Mahoney.

I understand the show’s selling out. And at GCT, a theater that, to my mind, has always been plagued with a bit of an identity problem, this one absolutely should. 

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