As the lights go down in the Woodford County Theater, a hushed crowd hears heavenly singing.
Stepping out from behind a glittery curtain, three women dressed in fluttery sequined dresses clutch their microphones and continue harmonizing Angels We Have Heard on High before launching into a rowdier rendition of It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.
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A quick glance around designer Todd Pickett's set confirms that we are not in traditional heavenly territory. There are no pearly gates here. Or streets of gold. But there is a bar, a beer-swilling live band (whose drummer sports a coonskin cap), a Christmas tree drowning in gaudy tinsel, and, perched at the zenith of the barnlike set piece, a rooster. Think of it as Dollywood chic.
Suspended above the rooster hangs a large neon sign declaring us to be in Hillbilly Heaven, a nightclub in Nashville where three women who met on a Greyhound bus launched their country music careers, forming the group The Honky Tonk Angels. After some time apart, the gals return to their old stomping ground for a Christmas reunion show.
Enter The Honky Tonk Angels' Holiday Spectacular. Part musical revue, part country comedy, The Woodford County Theatrical Arts Association's Christmas gift to the community is this bundle of good, (mostly) clean fun. Directed by Wes Nelson, the holiday spectacular lives up to its name, give or take a few unspectacular moments that are quickly forgotten as the show barrels along swiftly and entertainingly.
Highly reminiscent of old-fashioned variety shows (The Barbara Mandrell Show, for instance), the production's success is rooted in two main areas: its quick pacing and its effervescent cast.
Covering nearly 40 songs in two hours — most of them truncated or as part of a medley, with a few full-length solos to showcase each singer — the musical elements of the show vary wildly, intermittently skipping along from country to Motown to fat Elvis and back again.
The Honky Tonk Angels themselves are the driving force of the show, and Nelson deserves praise for careful casting. One weak link in such a high-intensity, vocally demanding production would easily render the show dreadful. Thank goodness for Amanda Adkins, Keara Michelle Beck, Sylvia Howard and Kimberly Sherrard as Darlene, Angela, Charilee and Sue Ellen.
Adkins is a perky gem as Darlene, the Mississippi Delta-raised, bouffant-sporting young singer bent on securing a record contract. Her high, clear-toned voice shows promise in ballads like Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors, but it is her comedic delivery that stands out. She took Ray Stevens' goofy romp The Mississippi Squirrel Revival and, as they say on American Idol, made it her own. Her talent for comedy is a pleasant surprise that I look forward to seeing again.
We don't expect to see Beck's character, Angela, at all. One of the original Angels who had been temporarily replaced with soulful singer Charilee, she surprises the other Angels by showing up in a Santa suit with a huge belly whose contents become one of the primary plot devices. Angela is pregnant with twins and about to give birth any minute. But Beck delivers more than a forward-moving story. Her voice is strong, robust and careful, and her portrayal of a self-confessed redneck is somehow not trite, although we all could've done without hearing Jeff Foxworthy's Redneck 12 Days of Christmas. The inclusion of that song played up the hillbilly stereotype a little too much for my taste.
Detroit native and California transplant Charilee (Howard) delivers a smooth Motown groove, and as the only non-original member of the Angels, she fits right in without losing her individual flair. A gospel-trained singer, Howard has a velvet voice with a powerful range, delivered with subdued sophistication. Her teary performance of What a Wonderful World lends a touching, somber tone toward the play's contemplative finale.
Sherrard rounds out the performers as Sue Ellen, a poufy-haired blonde from Texas who runs a successful manicure business in Los Angeles. Her hyper-sweetness and exaggerated Southern speech (watch how she adds syllables to lengthen simple words) made her a crowd favorite. A real-life Spanish teacher, Sherrard rocked a palm-tree embellished poodle skirt (courtesy of costume designer Jenna McGuire) in her performance of Feliz Navidad.
As an ensemble, the women share a rambunctious chemistry so charming that they easily seduced audience members Rob Sherrard and John Ward to show off their best dance moves during the Angels' rendition of Peppermint Twist, one of the show's many fun, engaging surprises.