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BWW Review: Chambers Stevens' IT'S WHO YOU KNOW

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Tennesseans come from a long line of storytellers - it's in our collective DNA, it seems, what with the state being home to the National Storytelling Festival, among other things - and Chambers Stevens (the 2012 First Night Honoree who co-founded Nashville Shakespeare Festival) is no different. In fact, for generations, members of his family have entertained those around them with stories both far-fetched and resolutely true.

Now performing onstage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Johnson Theatre, Stevens gives up some Hollywood insider information and some bona fide Tennessee tall tales via his freshest one-man show: It's Who You Know, playing through Saturday night. Yet despite the contemporary predilection for tabloid fodder and celebrity gossip, Stevens' stories don't go there. Rather, his stories - which are all funny and entertaining, to be certain - steers clear of the TMZ variety, instead focusing on genuinely human stories about the various star-crossed humans the Nashville native has met over his lifetime, including enough Music City folk to make us get all twinkly-eyed and besotted in remembrance (who doesn't love a good Ruth Sweet story or recollections of Ashley Judd and Faith Hill's first acting classes?).

Clearly, Stevens (who originally made his name in Nashville with theater and TV achievements that are still recalled with glee and adulation) has met some very real "characters" over his 50-something years: he's slept in the first class cabin of an airplane with Chaka Khan; Lawrence Fishburne was wearing a pink Minnie Mouse t-shirt at their kids' school in LA; he describes a Gwyneth Paltrow who is far nicer, kinder and gentler (if still kind of self-absorbed) than the celebrity the tabloids would have us believe her to be; and there is his beautifully evocative tribute to his beloved father that closes out his show with a nostalgic jolt of sentimentality - something you might have suspected would be exorcised from his being after decades in LaLaLand.

Of course, Stevens' wife - the equally gracious, luminously lovely and impressively talented in-her-own-right Betsy Sullenger - features prominently in his life's tales and their 26-plus year love affair lends credibility to every story even when she's nowhere around the action. In fact, some of her life's stories have crept into his file box of names, places and subjects, in a sincere and heart-tugging way which proves that celebrities are just like the rest of us, only with better lighting most of the time.

Chambers Stevens

The raciest material gleaned from Stevens' 90-minute show might be that he once smoked weed with Val Kilmer (although he keeps the details under his hat) or that the newly pubescent Stevens popped a boner when he went swimming with his new neighbors Irlene and Louise Mandrell, but the stories that will stick with you are his reminiscences about personal travels and opportunities afforded him by his status as one of Hollywood's leading acting coaches.

The stories, told from the generous, golden-hearted Stevens' personal perspective, are delightfully relayed to his eager and enthusiastic audiences (is there anything better than having someone prove that you can, Thomas Wolfe notwithstanding, go home again?), abound with interesting characters and including the kind of details that ring with truth. I've always contended that everyone has a story to tell, it's just all in the telling.

Case in point: Stevens' almost unbelievable tale of a serendipitous meeting with George Balanchine at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry House, which led to him teaching the entire cast of New York City Ballet how to clog - it's the kind of story that is so typical of Nashville, a blend of the elaborately fantastic with the unmistakable authenticity of having actually happened. Regardless of what some would have you believe, Nashville's always been the "It City," even when clad in gingham and denim.

Nashville music icon - who first made her name locally onstage with The Avante Garage Comedy Repertory Theatre and in A Rock Wedding, an original musical produced by TPAC before heading to NYC for her Broadway debut in Ring of Fire - Lari White (a 1990 First Night Award winner) made a surprise guest appearance on opening night, performing a heartrending, spine-tingling version of "Amazing Grace." Such surprises are in store for audiences tonight and tomorrow, making It's Who You Know much more of a theatrical event than just a one-man show at TPAC.

  • It's Who You Know. Written and performed by Chambers Stevens. Presented by Maverick Entertainment Partners LLC at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Johnson Theatre, through January 9. For details on the tour, go to www.ItsWhoYouKnowOnTour.com. Running time: 90 minutes (with no intermission).

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