Review: Likeable 'Honky Tonk Angels' doesn't live up to Studio Players' reputation

Contributing Culture CriticJuly 11, 2014 

Brooke Noe, left, plays Darlene, Erin L. Tuttle plays Sue Ellen, and Leah-Marie McDivitt plays Angela in Studio Players' production of Honky Tonk Angels. Photographed in July 2014 at Studio Players' Carriage House Theatre in Lexington, Ky.

LARRY NEUZEL — Courtesy of Studio Players

  • 'Honky Tonk Angels'

    What: Studio Players' production of the musical by Ted Swindley.

    When: 8 p.m. July 11, 12, 17-19, 24-26, 31, Aug. 1, 2; and 2:30 p.m. July 13, 20, 27, Aug. 3.

    Where: Studio Players' Carriage House Theatre, 154 W. Bell Ct.

    Tickets: $21. Available at (859) 257-4929 or Studioplayers.org.

For some years now, Lexington's oldest community theater, Studio Players, has mounted a light musical in the summer, treating the town to Forever Plaid and the hit Always ... Patsy Cline. This summer's offering follows in the same vein, with Honky Tonk Angels by Ted Swindley, the creator of the Cline show.

There is much to like in Angels, but it is not up to the level of Studio Players' recent summer musicals.

The main problem is the show itself: a derivative mash-up of country music and rural culture tropes.

The plot, such as it is, involves a trailer park queen, a coal miner's daughter and a sexually harassed secretary who meet cute on a bus as they head to Nashville to pursue their country music dreams.

After a long exposition of the women's stories in solo vignettes, we are asked to believe that they instantly become headliners at a Nashville nightclub, after which two of them return to their humdrum lives, leaving the other woman ostensibly to continue on to stardom.

This is the flimsiest possible framework for stringing together 30 of country music's most familiar songs, and it almost does them a disservice: A stand-and-deliver concert of these songs would have been at least as effective.

On Thursday's opening night, the three singer- actresses gave it their all. What they lacked in subtlety, they compensated for with energy.

As Angela, who leaves her husband and their six children, Leah-Marie McDivitt presents a warm, daffy persona, given to folksy platitudes and screeching interjections. Brooke Noe as the West Virginia coal-country girl Darlene brings a lovely natural voice to the proceedings but could have used more direction in creating a cohesive character. The talented Erin L. Tuttle plays the Dolly Parton-like Sue Ellen with bawdy flair.

These women work hard to bring the show to life, but perhaps a more relaxed approach to some scenes would have given the characters more contour. As directed with fast pace and insistent verve by Tonda-Leah Fields, the show finds and maintains just one gear: full-throttle. Some quieter, less campy moments would have benefited the play.

The amusing but repetitive choreography by Clemmy Ann Bastin is well suited to the performers' abilities.

Music director Jessica Slaton Greene has the women sounding really good in their songs, but the sound design is too hot for the small theater, making the singers sound strident. The accompanying onstage band is top-notch, with fiddler Mary Elizabeth Henton, keyboardist Karen Thomas Snider, guitarist John Dittert and bass player Ben McWhorter held together by the solid trap set skills of Roger Dittert.

The elaborate set by Bob Kinstle is decently rendered, especially the back of the Greyhound bus where the women meet.

The costumes and wigs are garish, not necessarily inappropriately so, but they could have been ameliorated with such details as hosiery.

Studio Players has a large community talent pool, and a loyal, supportive audience. I think it could serve both groups better by selecting real small-cast musicals rather than continuing along the path of throwback musical revues with miniscule plot or character development. Rather than shows where they let it all hang out for broad appeal, the troupe is capable of doing pieces that draw us in with artistry. Let's have that next summer.

Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musician, theater artist and lecturer at the University of Kentucky.

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