Thursday, October 19, 2017

Let GCT's Honky Tonk Angels Sing for You

Posted By on Thu, Oct 19, 2017 at 12:41 PM

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"It wasn't God who made Honky Tonk Angels."
— Kitty Wells
"REO Speedwagon can kiss my ass."
— Chris Davis
Far be it from me to suggest that there's no place in country music for "jazz hands," but if you're going for verisimilitude, it's probably a look you want to avoid. Jazz was always a major component of music created by artists like Hank Thompson, Hank Penny, Bob Wills, Ray Price and Willie Nelson, but jazz-hands belong almost exclusively to the Fosse-esque end of the musical theater spectrum. Between the hand choreography, the show-tuney arrangements, and a paper-thin script full of wince-worthy lines, the country jukebox musical Honky Tonk Angels currently on stage at Germantown Community Theatre, belongs on a cruise ship where it can entertain boozy audiences nostalgic for smoky ol' poolrooms they never hung out in in the first place.

Of course there's something intrinsically nostalgic about Honky Tonk, which, has always been city music for country people. It's the electrified steel-guitar-laden sound of rural people chasing economic opportunity in the aftermath of WWII. Cities were booming, and many a country boy and girl picked up stakes and moved to town looking for jobs and a better life. Those who landed on the street with a guitar slung over their shoulder wrote plaintive songs about displacement, temptation, loss and longing for a simpler life. In spite of its contemporary setting Honky Tonk Angels tells the story of two women from hardscrabble rural environments, and one working for a Weinsteinian character in L.A., who've left all that behind to become country stars in Nashville. They meet on a Greyhound Bus pulling out of Memphis, share origin stories, sing some country and gospel classics, and agree to join forces and start a band called Honky Tonk Angels.
What GCT's production has going for it is a strong cast that approaches the material from such an honest, loving place they almost make the pandering material work. Tamara Wright plays Sue Ellen, whose backstory is loosely rooted in the song "9 to 5." She brings the sass and sizzle on tunes like Parton's pink-collar anthem and Pam Tillis' uptempo novelty, "Cleopatra (Queen of Denial)." Songs like Loretta Lynn's "Don't Come Home a Drinkin," and "The Pill," sound awfully authentic tumbling from Ashely Whitten-Kopera's mouth. Her character Angela (get it?) narrates. Her backstory revolves around life in a double-wide with an inattentive husband named Bubba and a bunch of kids. Angela's written from an "outside the trailer park looking in" perspective, but Kopera finds just the right amount of good-ol-gal zest to make it all believable. .

From her simple but effective acoustic guitar accompaniment to her strong voice and wholesome girl-next-door approach, Courtney Church-Tucker is something of a miracle worker in the role of Darlene. Her history is inspired by an odd interpretation of Bobbie Gentry's hit "Ode to Billy Joe," and her backstory's told in strained one-sided dialogue that, to her credit, Church-Tucker very nearly pulls off.

You know what else doesn't really belong in a show about country music? Songs by REO Speedwagon. While the inclusion of Lee Hazelwood's "These Boots Are Made for Walking" might be forgiven because it's at least about boots, I can't be as generous with any selection from You Can Tune a Piano but You Can't Tuna Fish. It's a particularly frustrating inclusion in a show that allegedly celebrates female country artists but omits singers and songwriters like Norma Jean, Jeanne Shepherd, Wanda Jackson, Billie Jo Spears etc.  

Though it may sound cliche, I've got to acknowledge that the premise of Honky Tonk Angels is built on truth. People still arrive in Nashville every day with a guitar on their back, and a sack full of dreams. I've been down that road a time or two myself, and spent one delightful train ride from Chicago to Nashville picking out old country songs with a cowboy hat/boot-wearing former costumer for Actors Theatre Louisville who was on his way to Music City USA to make it big. But for all of its core truth, almost every element of this show rings false. The one element that doesn't is the cast.  As a huge fan of old country songs, this trio could sing me to sleep every night with zero complaint.

It's also worth noting that GCT and director Leigh Ann Evans seem to have anticipated the challenges this show presents and confronted them head on. During a time of economic difficulty for the theater, someone wisely decided to forego finished sets and extravagant costuming in favor of hiring a full complement of musicians including a fiddle player, a steel player, bass player, piano, drums, electric and acoustic guitar — all the things you need for a proper hoedown throw-down. Unless you're Miss Drag USA, there's no way to make lines like, "Without further hairdo," work, but Evans and company make an honest go of of a show that may not be worthy of their collective time and talents. Still, if you love the genre, the rest may be endured. Yes, even the jazz hands.

Even REO Speedwagon.

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