By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen |
A new honky-tonk musical based on an Anton Chekhov play is stomping the stage at the Two River Theater through July 1.
Set in a small Nashville bar where whiskey is a food group and music on the out- of-tune piano is more rhythm than melody, the ability to dance the two-step is a must. It’s here that 10 good friends and relatives are trying to sort out their lives — badly.
As in Chekhov’s 1896 play “The Seagull,” the musical “Songbird, written by Michael Kimmel with music and lyrics by Lauren Pritchard, centers on the romantic and artistic conflicts among four main characters: Tammy Trip (Felicia Finley, “The Wedding Singer,” “Mamma Mia!”) is a Grand Ole Opry star whose light is fading; her son Dean (Marrick Smith, “Fun Home”), is an aspiring songwriter who’s been ignored by a mother he rarely sees; Beck (Eric William Morris, “Be More Chill,” “The Ballad of Little Jo”), is her much younger lover and very successful songwriter and Mia (Ephie Aardema, “The Bridges of Madison County”), who is AWOL from her Southern Baptist family.
For those familiar with “The Seagull” that translates this way: Tammy Trip is fading actress Irina Arkadina, Dean is her symbolist play-wright son Konstantin, Beck is the famous story writer Boris Trigorin and Mia is the misguided ingenue Nina.
Not that you need to know anything about Chekhov or his play to follow “Songbird.” After matching the previous four characters, it’s better to stop. A fondness for folk, bluegrass and country pop would be a plus, for there is much more singing about broken dreams than talking, and a whole lot less character development.
The rest of the ensemble cast includes Kelly Karbacz (“Orange Is the New Black”) as Pauline, Drew McVety (“The Sting,” “The Front Page”) as Doc, Kacie Sheik (“Hair,” “February House”) as Missy, Bob Stillman (“Act One,” “Grey Gardens”) as Soren, Andy Taylor (“Sunset Boulevard,” “Once”) as Samuel, and Deon’te Goodman (“Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical”) as Rip.
And the actors supply the music for all 18 songs in this two-and-a-half-hour production via acoustic, 12-string and electric guitars, violin, cello, mandolin, ukulele, egg shaker and tambourine.
It’s Tammy’s return to her Nashville roots in the bar owned by her former singing partner Pauline, her husband Samuel and daughter Missy that launches life-altering events. Everyone is happy to see Tammy, but it doesn’t take long for her to turn nasty, especially when it comes to her son.
Sheik’s Missy is the mistress of verbal zingers. Finley’s Tammy is a self-absorbed diva who denigrates her son in front of everyone which leads to tragic results. And Smith’s Dean seems to hate her back and is jealous of the attention she lavishes on Beck, while Beck develops an interest in the young Mia who is the object of Dean’s affections. With me so far?
Meanwhile, bar mistress Pauline is sleeping with Doc (an excellent moody and mysterious McVety), who’s having second thoughts about the affair. Rip, the bar-back, loves Missy who loves Dean. And Tammy’s brother Soren? He’s the only one who seems happy with his lot in life, which includes cigarettes and whiskey shots for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Stillman’s portrayal is joyous to watch as well.)
“Songbird,” previously staged at the off-Broadway’s 59E59 Theaters in 2015, is neatly directed here by Gaye Taylor Upchurch with choreography by Marc Kimelman and music direction, arrangements and orchestrations by Kristopher Kukul.
Scenic designer Jason Sher wood’s impressive neon beer sign-cluttered bar melts away to a moonlit lake. I was totally impressed by how the blue haze from the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee hung over the set for the entire show.
Costumes were designed by Sarah J. Holden and Aaron Porter is the lighting designer.
“Songbird” tickets range from $40 to $70, with various dis- counts for groups, seniors, mili- tary personnel and their fami- lies, veterans and people age 29 and younger. Available at 732-345-1400 or tworivertheater.org. Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank.
Journalist Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen’s theater news and reviews can be found on theatercues.com.
This article first appeared in the June 21 – 28, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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