Skip to main content Skip to footer site map


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.


From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)

Review: Studio Tenn Collaborates with TPAC for 2022-23 Season Opener of AIDA IN CONCERT at Polk TheatreReview: Studio Tenn Collaborates with TPAC for 2022-23 Season Opener of AIDA IN CONCERT at Polk Theatre
October 1, 2022

Studio Tenn – the Franklin-based professional theater company – launches its 2022-23 season in collaboration with Tennessee Performing Arts Center for a concert staging of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, playing for just two nights at TPAC’s James K. Polk Theatre September 30 and October 1. Under the direction of Studio Tenn artistic director Patrick Cassidy (who shares duties with co-director and choreographer Gerry McIntyre), Aida features a starry cast of actors with Broadway pedigrees (Jackie Burns and Rex Smith), along with some of Music City’s most beloved stage veterans (Bakari Jamal King and Mark Cabus) and featuring the stunning triumph of a young woman who audiences have watched grow up on Nashville stages (Maya Riley) in the title role.

Review: Roxy Regional Theatre's 2022 Revival of INTO THE WOODS May Mark Another Turning Point For The CompanyReview: Roxy Regional Theatre's 2022 Revival of INTO THE WOODS May Mark Another Turning Point For The Company
September 30, 2022

In 2010, the Clarksville-based Roxy Regional Theatre staged a production of Stephen Sondheim and James LaPine’s “exquisitely off-kilter and melodiously rapturous musical Into the Woods” which remains firmly ensconced in my memory for its many attributes, not the least of which were the actors (Sarah Levine, Rachael Fogle, Josh Bernaski, Gregory Pember, Jackie Ostick and current artistic director Ryan Bowie) who brought the show so vividly to life and whose performances remain among some of the best we’ve seen at the venue in its 40 years. In fact, we often cite that 2010 Into the Woods (after another fondly remembered production some 15 years even before that) as a turning point, of sorts, in the history of The Roxy.

Review: PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL Plays Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center Through Sunday, 10/02Review: PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL Plays Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center Through Sunday, 10/02
September 28, 2022

Pretty Woman The Musical – the latest offering in the 2022-23 Broadway at TPAC Series – is one of those shows that almost defies explanation and proves even more difficult to review. (Case in point: I’ve rewritten that sentence 758 times in the past 22 hours and it’s still not “singing,” is it?) Pretty Woman The Musical is a pleasant enough diversion, entertaining even, but there is little in the show’s first act to convince most people that the 1990 rom com, which starred Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, needed to be transformed into a glitzy and glittering Broadway musical (a term we use loosely in this case), with Olivia Valli and Adam Pascal in the leading roles.

Review: Nashville Story Garden's U.S. Premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's THE WELKIN Will Have Audiences TalkingReview: Nashville Story Garden's U.S. Premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's THE WELKIN Will Have Audiences Talking
September 24, 2022

Nothing engages the theaterati in Nashville and the surrounding provinces as the production of an eagerly anticipated new play no one’s done before in these parts, but about which we’ve read glowing reviews. The very promise of something new to energize the cultural zeitgeist – particularly under the aegis of Nashville Story Garden (a creative collective whose work always generates major buzz); something new and unseen from across the pond which will provide a showcase for the remarkable talents of some of the region’s most respected actors – is virtually guaranteed to be a “must-see” for a theater-going public more accustomed to titles with which they are already quite often overly familiar.

LeLand Gantt Brings RHAPSODY IN BLACK to TPAC This Weekend for Three PerformancesLeLand Gantt Brings RHAPSODY IN BLACK to TPAC This Weekend for Three Performances
September 23, 2022

As with most intelligent and clever actors struggling to find paying work during difficult times, LeLand Gantt readily admits that he was inspired to create Rhapsody in Black, which has been described as “a powerful personal narrative on racism, identity, and self-image” to provide some work for himself, allowing him to “stay in town to do more tv and film.” Now, however, as acclaim for his one-man show continues to grow, he’s finding himself “out of town” – he's based in New York – to give theater-goers all over the country a chance to see his the result of his creativity on his personal journey to transcene racism in America.