The heartache’s right but the songs are wrong in this lightly sketched concert-musical hybrid
Theater review by Kris Vire
Kelly Combs, right, and the cast of My Life Is a Country Song
I’ve been fairly steeped in country music lately. Despite spending the first two decades of my life in the South, I visited Nashville for the first time just a month ago, walking Music Row, hitting up Broadway honky tonks and visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. Since coming home, I’ve been making my way through Country Music, the 16-hour Ken Burns documentary series that premiered on PBS in September, as well as listening to Dolly Parton’s America, the excellent new podcast from Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad. Combine all of this with a lot of spins through Spotify’s classic country playlists, and it’s been a good reminder that there’s much more to the genre than the Affliction-shirted redneck frat-pop that dominates “Hot Country” radio today.
So I was well primed for New American Folk Theatre’s My Life Is a Country Song, a new revue-style musical with book, music and lyrics by Anthony Whitaker, purportedly inspired by the country music of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Set in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1980, the show focuses on Donna (Kelly Combs), newly divorced at 30 and trying to restart her life after a dozen years of letting abusive ex-husband Gary (Kirk Jackson) control her days and nights.
Kirk Jackson and Kelly Combs in My Life Is a Country Song
Gary was so domineering, in fact, that Donna’s barely spoken to her lifelong best friend Jackie (Lena Dudley) since high school graduation despite residing in the same small town. But they reconnect when Donna moves into a rental house across the street from Jackie and her husband Freddy (Joey Harbert, who also serves as musical director); along with Donna’s prim little sister, Alma (Charlie Irving), and her new landlady, Shirley (Judy Lea Steele), they form Donna’s support system in fending off Gary’s continued harassment.
In all of this heartbreak and turmoil, Donna briefly tells us at the top of the show, she hears the clichés of country music. Hence the show’s title, as well as its rather too-fuzzy concept. My Life Is a Country Song is, Donna says, the country concert that’s been rattling around in her head. But in director Sarah Gise’s staging, the dramaturgical boundaries always remain a little unclear—is the entire show set inside Donna’s head?
Kelly Combs, Lena Dudley and Charlie Irving in My Life Is a Country Song
The supporting cast doubles as Donna’s band (with additional backup from musicians Noah Nichols and Isabella Snow), taking up one side of the makeshift playing space in the upstairs bar at Chief O’Neill’s; the other side is (mostly) Donna’s new house. When a character has a song, they tend to step downstage to one of a trio of mic stands and the lights shift with them.
These transitions only raised more questions in my head: Are the musical numbers within the narrative or commenting on it? Are the characters singing in the moment, or stepping outside of it? Are they still in character when they’re seated with the band? Does that mean Gary is playing percussion against his will?
Judy Lea Steele, Lena Dudley and Charlie Irving (standing, from left) and Kelly Combs (seated) in My Life Is a Country Song
A couple of additional lines from Donna at the start could better establish the world of the show. What will take more work is fitting it to its professed genre. Very few of Whitaker’s songs sound particularly country in their structure, chord progressions or lyrics. There are brief moments—Gary’s brief solo sort of evokes “The Gambler,” and you could imagine the refrain of Donna’s “Another Damn Dozen Roses” in the voice of a Tammy Wynette type.
But even the instrumentation feels off. My recent refresher course has reminded me that the sound of country music is largely banjo and fiddle, harmonica and pedal steel—all lacking here. The sound of Harbert’s band, and of Whitaker’s songs, are closer to some of the acts they covered in the preshow warmup Sunday night, like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles.
Judy Lea Steele in My Life Is a Country Song
There’s some spark in Whitaker’s idea here, along with some amusing jokes about small-town Southern life, and the women in the cast of this bare-bones staging offer appealing performances. Combs’s Donna is a protagonist worth rooting for, and Steele, Dudley and Irving provide winning support. (Jackson, as the obvious villain, doesn’t stand a chance of winning us over.) I’ll consider My Life a work in progress; the bones of a catchy tune are here, but the hook needs a little more work.
My Life Is a Country Song
New American Folk Theatre at Chief O’Neill’s Pub (3471 N Elston Ave). Book, music and lyrics by Anthony Whitaker. Directed by Sarah Gise. Music direction by Joey Harbert.
Cast: Kelly Combs (Donna), Lena Dudley (Jackie), Joey Harbert (Freddy), Charlie Irving (Alma), Kirk Jackson (Gary), Judy Lea Steele (Shirley). Musicians: Isabella Snow (guitar, back-up vocals), Noah Nichols (bass, back-up vocals).
Designers: Kate Kamphausen (costumes), David Philyaw (lighting), Scott Free (sound), Claire Yearman (violence and intimacy), Peter Gertas (scenic and props). Stage manager: Lauren Lassus.
Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes; no intermission. Through November 21. Tickets ($20) at newamericanfolktheatre.org.
Photographs by Joseph Ramski Photography.
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