By: Apr. 02, 2016
Britt Hancock, Weslie Webster, Lori Fischer and Bill Frey

Lori Fischer's The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers does what so many shows before it have attempted: To create a completely new world out of whole cloth and set it down amid the already existing world (in which we mere mortals ply our collective trade), peopled by characters who are easy to love or at least accessible enough to be engaging and fun to watch. Where Fischer's new musical - now onstage at Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse - succeeds so impressively is in its refreshing storytelling structure that invites audiences into the fictionalized version of Ashland City, Tennessee, where people care deeply about their neighbors and are likely to sing songs displaying their affection and which are bound to make you guffaw (probably more than once).

Clearly, it's not a life-changing, genre-shattering new musical on a grand, worldwide scale, nor will it likely ever be a hit on the Broadway. Rather, The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers retains its small-town charm while embracing its Tennessee roots with enough sentimentality to ensure hearty - and heartfelt - responses from audiences (and critics!) to do credit to the awesome work by the playwright and her songwriting partner Don Chaffer, who have crafted a story that is eminently accessible and enormously likable. The show is never mawkish, its histrionics are relatable on a human scale, and yet somehow it is larger than life in the way every musical should be in order to fit the theatrical mold set forth as far back as the days of Romberg, Friml and Herbert, Kern and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Hammerstein accompanied by a whole cadre of other collaborators.

And while the characters do possess certain qualities that exemplify their larger-than-life-sized mien, The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers clearly respects the people about whom the show is written. Sure, they have their own foibles and shortcomings (Lashley Lee Lashley, the lead singer of the sisterhood of the traveling band, is a recovering alcoholic, as self-absorbed a demi-celebrity that you could ever hope to meet, while Junie Lashley is a self-effacing worrier and sometime whiner who is, nonetheless, big-hearted and steadfast), but they sure are funny, which makes the dramatic arc of the two sisters, from start to finish, in the play all the more appealing (the only way they could be more so is if the Playhouse served up some fried catfish and hushpuppies or "meetin' Jell-o salad" as an appetizer prior to curtain - or deviled eggs, which are an important addition to any grief groaning board).

Fischer and Chaffer's small, four-person chamber musical with a certain twang to it, focuses on Ashland City's country-singin' Lashley Sisters, who are back home after their tour bus crashed into a pet shop window filled with puppies (if that doesn't show the bravery of the writers, I simply do not know what does; as Lashley reminds us, "you don't come back from killing puppies") and the subsequent rehabilitation of their lives and reputations. The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers succeeds on multiple levels thanks to the playwright's determination and imagination, the score of songs created by Fischer and Chaffer, Bryce McDonald's smooth-as-glass direction and the combined efforts of the show's four-member cast (who have enough chemistry among them to rival just about any quartet of actors who could be assembled for any onstage assignment), regardless of pedigree and lineage.

For the debut of The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers, a new musical that entertains supremely and makes you laugh out loud in abundance, the creative team - along with their onstage and backstage crews - have assembled the requisite elements that equal a hit-in-the-making while revealing something even more exciting and impressive: a new voice in musical theater that is quite possibly unlike anything you've heard before.

Consider this: When Pastor Phil, the leader of the flock at Ashland City's Third United Separated Harmony Church brings in his weekly load of dress shirts, Sansabelt slacks and grass-stained chinos to The Sparkley Clean Dry Cleaning establishment, he instantly realizes the solution to a peculiarly small-town crisis. With local funeral singer Bindy Moss, famous for writing new and personalized tunes for every town interment, now headed to the pearly gates herself, Pastor Phil is desperate for someone to take her place at the altar. Explaining to Junie Lashley (who's behind the counter of her family's business) that death is inevitable and that every Ashland Citizen is apt to die someday, and suggesting that the road to redemption for two struggling sisters who need to sing might indeed be paved with funeral flowers, four-can casseroles and church-lady bereavement buffets, he is on the right track to solving life's dilemmas for everyone in the whole gosh-darn show. In short, as a lot of people with connections (however slight) to the Nashville music industry are sure to die, Pastor Phil contends, June and Lashley are afforded the opportunity to regain the spotlight and re-enter polite Cheatham County society after the unfortunate incident of the tour bus crash and the poor puppies who paid for their sins.

The situation is deftly comical - no stereotypes were injured in the making of this stage musical (nor are any actual puppies hurt or even involved in the production, save for Junie's wonderfully conceived depiction of one pampered pooch during the funeral of "Jimmy Boy Brown and his Toy Poodle, Puddin'") - and the script's barbs and best jokes are equally and democratically scattered across a plethora of small town types. But the use of pop culture prototypes lacks the offensive nature of simply going for the easy laugh; instead, the laughs come from the knowledge that you actually know people like the ones portrayed onstage.

You may not know a pair of struggling, singing sisters or evangelical preachers with a gambling habit and a wife named Midge, but rest assured that if you are a resident of Middle Tennessee, you've brushed up against people just like them sometime upon life's journey and that is at least part of the reason you're certain to love The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers. Well, that and the show's musical score, which is replete with clever lyrics and delightful internal rhymes that are sure to ingratiate themselves to you. Kudos to Fischer and Chaffer for their altogether pleasing turn of phrase.

Yet while The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers will certainly make you laugh, the show can turn on a dime and you will just as easily find yourself becoming more emotional, your eyes filled with tears as memories of your own family members and other loved ones who have made your life a unique musical in its own right flood your heart. In that way, the show is manipulative in the very best ways that all theater should be.

McDonald's direction ensures that the play's action moves at a good pace, creating a sense of near-cinematic fluidity that keeps the audience's attention focused and engaged in the story playing out before them - ably abetted by Kathryn E. Cook's scenic design, which provides the perfect backdrop for the show's action, and Camden Simon's evocative lighting design that delivers ideal illumination of the various scenes, 9often directing or redirecting, as the case may be9 the audience's eyes where they need to be.

Music director Ron Murphy's four-man band brings the score to life with tremendous energy and flair. Ashlynn Ludwig's costumes provide the characters with the necessary flair of down-home fashion sense that's pitch-perfect, while Matt Bundy's sound design allows for every note to be heard as intended.

Fischer leads the four-person cast with a stellar performance as Junie Lashley, whose wild-eyed theatrics are played honestly despite the heightened reality of her circumstances. Obviously, Fischer has been working overtime on this show, writing and rewriting and rehearsing, while bringing to a life a characterization that fairly brims over with heart and soul.

She's beautifully paired with Weslie Webster as her off-the-wall and over-the-top sister Lashley Lee Lashely, a woman whose star-power has lost none of its voltage during her intervening stay in drug rehab and her re-entry into the small town social strata in which everyone knows your business and is talking about you along Main Street and the tree-lined environs of hometown neighborhoods. Webster doesn't so much enact the role of Lashley as she becomes her stunning, onstage doppelganger. Webster gives the kind of performance that would be startling if we hadn't already become so enamored of her own tremendous talents and noteworthy skills.

Britt Hancock brings the "wolf in sheep's clothing" Pastor Phil to life with a fillip of man-of-the-cloth sex appeal (does anyone else remember Designing Women's Charlene Frazier's declaration that all preachers are kind of hot, in a clean-cut kinda way? Just so's you know: she could have been speaking of Hancock's Pastor Phil) and, along the way, he deploys some of his best song-and-dance-man theatrics to elicit some of the show's biggest laughs. Hancock's ability to play even the most mundane lines for the biggest onstage payoff is laudable and something actors witnessing his performance should commit to memory.

Completing the four-member ensemble is Bill Frey, whose performance as the girls' Alzheimer's disease-afflicted father is performed with grace and nuance. Frey's Lyle Lashley is a moving, touching achievement, saved from maudlin obscurity by the humor of the piece, Frey's own multi-layered interpretation of the role, and the aforementioned chemistry of director McDonald's four-member ensemble who together lift The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers to higher theatrical heights than might have been considered possible when read upon the printed page.