BWW Reviews: CCP's GOLDEN BOY OF THE BLUE RIDGE Musically Updates Synge's Irish Classic
Back in the day-1907, actually-when John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World premiered at Dublin's Abbey Theater, it apparently caused riots, its tale of an apparent patricide engendering great public outrage and overt hostilities. Four years later, when the play debuted in New York City, audience members hurled epithets, rotten tomatoes and various other vegetation across the footlights, protesting the play's perceived "immorality."
That it is now considered a classic work of Irish literature proves those early naysayers misguided, if not out-and-out wrong, and provides one of those happy endings for which the theater is justifiably lauded. But something tells me that if those early audiences had seen the musical updating of the play-Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel-they, very possibly, may have tossed floral tributes onto the stage and raised a parade through Dublin, New York or Philadelphia (where the company was actually arrested after the New York debacle), adding loud choruses of "Huzzah!" in recognition of the enormously entertaining and tune-filled comedy.
Now onstage at Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse in a fast-paced, thoroughly delightful production helmed by John Fionte and featuring an eleven-member ensemble of actors and musicians, Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge is an engaging, bluegrass-flavored musical that transplants the action to Appalachia while maintaining Synge's original characters and themes. It is, obviously, a heady undertaking for Mills (who provides the music and lyrics) and Reichel (who adapted Synge's manuscript with Mills), taking on a classic theatrical creation and maneuvering and molding it into a musical that, while set to a bluegrass score, retains its universality and Irish charm even when set upon the hidden hills and hollers of western Virginia.
The action comes across fast and furious, the story of handsome young Clayton Monroe (played with self-assured confidence by Greg Pendzick) captivates and enthralls the people he encounters at J.M. McFarland's (played with his customary zeal and focus by Daniel Black) general store and rustic/rural "speakeasy." Clayton is on the run from the law, fleeing arrest for the supposed murder of his despotic father.
Rather than be repelled by the tale related to them by the charming Clayton, the locals are caught up in the romantic notion of a cold-blooded, shovel-wielding murderer in their midst, with special attention coming Clayton's way from the love-starved women (including a comely, if gossipy, young widow woman played by Lauren Marshall, who doubles as music director of the production) of the neighborhood. In fact, J.M.'s daughter Maggie (played with a palpable warmth that belies her fiery passion by Anna Baker) seems particularly taken with the handsome, mysterious stranger, prompting her to throw over her intended, the cowardly milquetoast Luther Coffey (Austin Price delivers a nuanced, studied performance that is among the best we've seen from him on The Playhouse stage in recent years) to run off to "the west" with Clayton.
When another mysterious, bloodied but unbowed, stranger (played with understated zeal and exquisite timing by Playhouse veteran Jason Ross) ventures into the hamlet in search of Clayton, you can be certain that even more trouble and intrigue are afoot!
Opening with the rousing "Way Out Back and Beyond," in which we are introduced to the main characters and are plunged quickly into the somewhat farfetched story, Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge hews closely to Synge's original script, with Mills and Reichel setting it among a group of moonshiners on the lookout for revenuers and with the close-knit mountainfolk providing comic relief as the real story of Clayton's misadventures unfolds before them.
It's a cleverly written updating and the characters are somehow believable despite the implausibility of the situations, and the music-well, the music is terrific! There's enough of a bluegrass flavor to it for it to be palatable to regional audiences, without seeming at all derivative or too cute by half. Sure enough, there's nothing phony-sounding about Mills' score, although it's clear that even if it were performed by piano and strings, it would sound just as lovely-and be just as affecting-as it is when played on fiddle, banjo, mandolin and upright bass. Each of the score's 15 songs are organic to the plot, each propelling the story on its journey from start to finish and, unlike a lot of recent original scores we've heard, the songs don't sound homogenized , nor are they necessarily predictable.
"Way Out Back and Beyond" is raucously entertaining, a surefire way to draw audiences into the story; "They Right Man for the Job" is character-driven and effective; "Grist for the Mill," which may be the one song that doesn't dovetail so seamlessly into the rest of the score (it seems more like a folk-tinged song performed from memory), is nonetheless delightful and an ideal way to draw the second act audience back into the story after 15 minutes of intermission and bathroom breaks. But it's "Golden Boy," performed with such startling intensity by Baker that may be the show's most memorable, and which most effectively recalls Margaret's plaintive rejoinder in Synge's play that she has lost the one true "playboy of the western world."
Therein you find the true charm and unyielding impact of Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge: it's faithful to Synge's original work, without being slavishly chained to it (there's no feeling that the writers feel at all constrained by the original). Rather, Mills and Reichel use it as a jumping off point, using it as a framework-never straying far from Synge's original story, to be sure-to craft a contemporary work for the theater that is enormously entertaining and endlessly delightful and diverting. And, as director Fionte writes in his notes for the playbill, it's unlike anything you've seen or heard before (although there are moments that recall the very best of Jason Robert Brown and Adam Guettel) or likely to encounter hence.
Fionte's ensemble of actors/musicians delivers the goods with big-hearted, expansive style, intelligently playing the comedy with more subtlety than expected. Donald Frison's choreography seems inspired by both mountain clogging and high-Flying Musical theater style, which gives the show a lighthearted, sprightly spring in its step.
Marshall's musical direction ensures that the score is performed in exemplary fashion by her players: Douglas Waterbury-Tieman on fiddle, Colin Cahill on banjo, John Dobbratz on mandolin, ukulele and the intriguingly named "spamjo" (which I like to think is fashioned from an empty Spam can strung with catgut), Drew Robbins on guitar and Tony Greco on bass (at the performance reviewed, Ron Murphy played bass on keyboards offstage in place of the absent Greco).
In addition to their fine musicianship, the uber-versatile Waterbury-Tieman, Cahill and Dobbratz play several characters in the show, including some large-footed, ham-handed mountain belles who seek to supplant Maggie in Clayton's heart.
Baker's spirited Maggie is an outspoKen Young woman who dreams of something bigger and better than she's been raised to expect, and her chemistry with Pendzick-and with Price-is richly colored and multi-layered with meaning and intent. Black is charmingly duplicitous as J.M., the ne'er do well moonshiner who runs afoul of the law from time to time, while Marshall makes the most of her every moment onstage as the Widow Grubbs to create a memorable performance. But it's Ross (and his exceptional makeup design-you have to see it to believe it!) who very nearly steals the show with an on-target portrayal of the mysterious interloper who throws a wrench into the romanticized tale of Clayton's misdeeds.
Fionte's set design provides the ideal backdrop for the play's action-the McFarland cabin is home, general store and hangout for the neighborhood's habitués-and Sam Hahn's lighting design artfully captures the play's action, evoking the mountain setting in so doing. Renee Lutrell's costumes help to create the actors' characterizations with perfect period style.
- Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge. Music and lyrics by Peter Mills. Adapted from John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel. Directed by John Fionte. Musical direction by Lauren Marshall. Choreography by Donald Frison. Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville. For details, go to www.ccplayhouse.com. For reservations, call (931) 484-5000.