Chekhov with a Nashville Twist

June 6, 2018
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The cast of “Songbird.” Top row from left: Deon’te Goodman, Felicia Finley, Andy Taylor, Kelly Karbacz and Drew McVety. Bottom row from left: Eric William Morris, Ephie Aardema and Marrick Smith. Photo courtesy Two River Theater

By Mary Ann Bourbeau |

Two River Theater will close out its season with the new musical “Songbird,” which takes Anton Chekhov’s 1895 play, “The Seagull,” and sets it in Nashville.

In the story, fading country star Tammy Trip returns home to the honky-tonk bar that launched her career. She plans to help the son she abandoned as he launches his own music career, but stirs up old feelings and grudges along the way.

“Songbird,” written by Michael Kimmel with music and lyrics by Lauren Pritchard, premiered off-Broadway in 2015 and was a New York Times Critics Pick. The cast at Two River Theater has numerous Broadway credits, led by Felicia Finley (“The Wedding Singer”), who takes on the role of Tammy. Also starring are Ephie Aardem (“The Bridges of Madison County”), Drew McVety (“Bandstand”), Eric William Morris (“Mamma Mia!”) Marrick Smith (“Fun Home”), Kacie Sheik (“Hair”), Andy Taylor (“Once”) and Bob Stillman (“Dir ty Blonde”), along with Deon’te Goodman, who performed in “Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical” at the 2017 New York Musical Festival.

Rounding out the cast is Kelly Karbacz, who currently stars as Kasey Sankey on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” (OITNB), for which she and her co-stars were nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series. In addition to Karbacz’s many television and film credits, she made her Broadway debut as Maureen Johnson in “Rent.” In “Songbird,” she takes on the role of Pauline, a Nashville bar waitress.

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“When I heard this role was available, I jumped at the chance,” she said. “The show has love, heartbreak, ambition and a good deal of whiskey. Pauline is such a meaty role. She’s married but having a long-term affair. It brings excitement back into her life.”

Karbacz discovered Two River Theater last year when OITNB castmate Daniella De Jesús performed in “The Women of Padilla.”

“I came to see it and I was blown away,” she said. “The play itself was gorgeous and it’s such a beautiful, intimate space. I was so excited to discover it. The stars aligned for me. Maybe coming here last season put it out in the world for me.”

Her voice fills with excitement when she talks about “Songbird.”

“It’s a very strong ensemble piece with phenomenal female roles and an incredible female director,” she said, referring to Gaye Taylor Upchurch. “And musically, it felt like it fit me as a performer. Lauren’s music hits me so deep in the soul.”

Karbacz became enthralled with theater when she saw her first show, “Annie,” at the age of 4.

“I saw those kids on stage and my eyes lit up,” she said. “I felt tingly all over and I felt in my bones that was for me.”

At age 10, she sang in a variety show, where a talent agent spotted her. Soon after, she was performing in the New York City Opera revival of “The Sound of Music.”

“I never looked back,” she said. “There was no Plan B. I was fortunate enough to have a career from a young age. It’s been a whirlwind, working in theater, film and TV. There’s no greater thing than being able to do what you’re passionate about.”

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Karbacz is widely known for OITNB, where she plays the leader of the white power movement in Litchfield Penitentiary, a minimum-security women’s federal prison.

“It’s so challenging to play because it’s so different from who I am as a person,” she said. “I portray her in the most honest way possible and I try not to judge her. I’m so proud to be a part of something so groundbreaking. They’ve given me such amazing material.”

As for the show’s upcoming Season 6, Karbacz isn’t giving anything away.

“What happens in Litchfield stays in Litchfield,” she said.

“Songbird” runs from June 9 to July 1 at Two River Theater. Tickets are $23 to $58 and are available at

Arts and entertainment writer Mary Ann Bourbeau can be reached at

This article was first published in the May 31-June 7, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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