Well, we did it. The musical “Honky Tonk Angels” opened last night at the Racine Theater Guild – and it was an absolute smash. People laughed and cried and sang along and had a fantastic time – and so did I, even though country western music is way down on my list of favorite musical styles. . . probably buried way down the list between Bulgarian Nose Flute Music and Mongolian Folk Songs transcribed for Barbershop Quartet. But this show really managed to win over my heart because it contains one great song after another . . . and they are all sung amazingly well by our terrific three angels. (I have heard a recording of this show with less skilled singers, and by the end of the first half I was ready to take up sword swallowing in the hopes of putting myself out of my misery.) Couple that with some hilarious comedy and some moments of tremendous poignancy and you have yourself a great show. Not that it’ a masterpiece; there are some moments that make me cringe a bit…. but some of those corniest moments elicited huge laughs tonight. So what do I know?
What I know is that we are so fortunate to have the three women that we do in the roles of Angela, Sue Ellen and Darlene. Angela, the brassy, good-hearted, yet deeply dissatisfied housewife from Texas is played by Robbyn Wilks as though the role had been written for her. She delivers all of the guts and grit of this character- right down to calling her husband “you scum- suckin’ redneck!” – with just the right sort of warmth that makes you love her all the same. Her showstopping solos include “Stand by your Man” and “Harper Valley PTA.” Sue Ellen, a more worldly woman who has transplanted herself from Texas to Los Angeles, is portrayed by Kate Potter Barrow, who manages to do incredibly well with a part that is poles apart from who she is in real life. (One of the toughest parts of the role for her is that she has to be crabby on the phone with her mother- something which never has and I’m sure never will happen in real life.) Kate’s entrance on the Dolly Parton classic “Nine to Five” is fantastic- while she manages to make a corny song called “Cornell Crawford” one of the most unforgettable moments of the night (complete with baton twirling.) Finally there is Darlene, the rather innocent and naive girl from West Virginia, whose never been bowling – never worn nail polish – but has this burning desire (as do the other two women) to sing. Dana Roders delivers an absolutely exquisite performance that tugs at the strings and leaves you positively haunted. She sings “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Ode to Billy Joe” and an amazing song called “Fancy” – each more impressive than the first.
But as superb as all of these individual performances are, the greatest magic of all is when these three women sing together. You would have thought that they have been singing together for years when in fact it’s only been a couple of months. But the blend and balance of their voices, the pristine precision – and the sheer beauty of their sound is something that belongs on a major record label. I would give anything to make a recording of them to send off to the composer of “Honky Tonk Angels” because I think he would be absolutely blown away. I know I am.
Yet apart from the singing itself- and the hilarious comedy bits – is the tremendous heart of these three women who have come to most sincerely love each other both onstage and off. I cannot think of any other show I’ve ever been involved in where the cast was such a complete joy with which to collaborate. I can’t think of a single moment when there was even the slightest hint of any prima donna attitude. They were completely generous with and supportive of one another from the first day we read through the show. . . and I’ve come to realize that this is so vitally important when you have a show with such a small cast. (When you do a big show like “The Music Man,” you can afford to have a rotten apple or two in the orchard because everyone else’s niceness can sort of absorb that. But when you have a cast of only three or four people, the matter of chemistry is so much more important – and any problems with people getting along are all but fatal to the show’s success and to the cast’s morale.)
I also have to say that these three women listened to me and followed my every suggestion as though I actually knew what I was talking about. The truth of the matter is that I know as much about country music as Tanya Tucker knows about Mendelssohn string quartets. . . but they respected me and took my guidance with faith that somehow we would end up in the winner’s circle. And we most certainly did.
And joining the women in that winner’s circle last night was the band – which had to get its act together in a much shorter period of time than would ever be ideal. I spent both last night (which was the preview performance) and tonight (opening night) up with the band. . . providing some whispered cues to help everyone stay together. . . and a glare or two to band leader Zach Johnson if a song got started at a drastically wrong tempo. Actually, that’s what i was doing Thursday night. . . but by last night everything was pretty much humming like a top and I was up there pretty much as a pointless figure head . . . the queen of England to Zach’s prime minister. (We know who is the harder worker of those two.)
As I climbed down that ladder tonight at the end of the performance, I was actually feeling tremendously sad that my hands-on involvement with the show was now finished- but then I realized that Zach has to miss Thursday night’s performance because of a tremendously exciting opportunity that he couldn’t possibly turn down and which neither Doug Instenes nor I wanted him to miss out on. So on that night, we will have a substitute fiddle player. . . and I will be up there leading the band – and I know that it will feel glorious to be making music again with these three angels among us.
pictured above: Dana, Robbyn and Kate accept the applause and cheers and standing ovation of the greatly appreciative opening night crowd. They take their final bow right after the cast and audience join together in the singing of “Will the Circle be Unbroken?”
By the way, we are proud to be subscribers to the Racine Journal Times- and I fervently believe in newspapers- but I was dismayed and even angry when I learned that the newspaper put in the errant headline RTG to present “Always…Patsy Cline” over an article about Honky Tonk Angels. (I was told the error occurred with two separate articles, but I’ve only laid eyes on one.) The first line of the article read “From Ted Swindley, the creator of “Always…Patsy Cline,” a sell-out hit for the RTG in the summer of 2003, comes a musical with the same charm and strong female singing.” This is why the phone in the box office has been ringing off the wall non- stop all day Thursday and Friday, as though the theater guild were giving away $1000 bills to the first 200 people who called. It was call after call from people who saw that headline and went nuts thinking that Patsy Cline was back. (so to speak.) I know mistakes happens but I’m pretty sure that 4-year-old Lorelai would not have pulled a boner like that headline. But. . . what a happy mistake for them to have made as far as the RTG was concerned. And of course, every one who called had the mistake pointed out- but most bought tickets anyway, and judging from the standing ovation and the cheers, they didn’t mind a bit.