BWW Reviews: 800 MILES OFF BROADWAY from The Glory Bugles
Bonnie Keen, apparently, can do anything. Heretofore known for having one of the most memorable voices in the music business, she's also left her mark in theatrical circles as one of the most fearless comedic actresses to ever take the stage. But who knew she could also twirl the baton - and do the splits? Bonnie Keen is one amazing human being, for certain, and she puts all her many talents on display in 800 Miles Off Broadway, the latest stage spectacle to feature The Glory Bugles, the gospel-singing pride of fictional Box Springs, Tennessee, featuring the tremendously talented Nan Gurley, Wayne Gurley and Stevan Pippin (with scene-stealing Ted Wilson joining in on the fun at the piano).
With small-town churches and big-time gospel music acts as inspiration, the four Glory Bugles deliver a musical variety show/revue that seems at least partially inspired by Waiting for Guffman with its heartfelt sincerity underscoring the broader strokes of comedy that delight audiences. Obviously, The Glory Bugles' hearts are all in the right place, with a program note telling audience members: "If we are made in God's image, then He certainly has a sense of humor, and it's OK for us to have a good laugh at ourselves and each other from time to time."
Featuring original songs by the quartet of gifted musicians and actors, 800 Miles Off Broadway is rollicking good fun that pokes fun at over-the-top religious zealotry while remaining true to the four actors' Christian roots. None of the show's humor is cruel or tacky (which is not to say that the costumes aren't at least a little tacky) or at all disrespectful or sacrilegious - it's just flat-out funny! Delivered with the skillful timing honed by years of working together, The Gospel Bugles' comedy can be enjoyed by audiences of all stripes, but if you grew up in a small town, in an evangelical church where covered dish suppers were a regular part of your lifestyle, you can rest assured that you'll recognize a whole slew of people from your own life.
In fact, I'm not convinced that Keen, Pippin and the Gurleys haven't been looking for inspiration for the show in my own life. After all, I'm was born and raised in Bethel Springs, Tennessee, where I grew up in the First Baptist Church, so I see some very real people among the four fictional characters of The Glory Bugles. You are likely to see people you know, as well, which is certainly part of the charm and the appeal of 800 Miles Off Broadway. (By the way, the show's title comes from the quartet's dream to make it to the Big Apple...if they can just get the van running again.)
Keen plays the hard-working Beulah Byrd, who has six or seven jobs back in Box Springs (she grooms poodles, which explains her own extra-curly hairstyle, and every third Saturday she's a ticket taker at the local end-of-days-inspired theme park), but still finds time to travel the gospel music circuit with her husband, Farley (Wayne Gurley, who is married to co-star Nan Gurley), who's intent on building a new gym at their home church so their basketball team can reign supreme over the other churches in the area.
Nan Gurley - one of Nashville's most acclaimed dramatic actresses who also boasts an award-winning music career - is church matriarch Queenie Delphine, who does double-duty as a vocal coach and who runs the congregation like the grande dame that she is. And finally, the fourth Bugle, Dr. Harley E. Never PhD (which means he's a pig and hog doctor), relates some very funny stories and does a pretty convincing Elvis Presley impression.
The quartet's comedy is presented with no-holds-barred abandon, with a spirited sense of fun and warmth permeating the scenes (which include some riotously funny commercials for businesses in the Box Springs area), but what sets the show apart is the total commitment of each actor to his or her character. To say that each player becomes their alter ego is an understatement, so completely focused are the superb performances by the four actors.
Keen and Nan Gurley (who also tour in their more serious-minded two-woman show, Women Who Dare to Believe) give wildly over-the-top portrayals that are grounded in Southern church reality - while we've never heard of a Casserole Addicts support group, we do not doubt the need for such a 12-step program - and which ring true despite the hijinks and antics on display at TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre during the four-performance run last weekend.
Pippin and Wayne Gurley's comic performances might be considerably less frenetic than the two actresses' takes on their characters, but they are nonetheless just as energetic and on-target. Wayne Gurley's Farley is the weary spouse of the slightly crazed Beulah, with a common-sensical approach to church affairs and touring as a slightly famous gospel group. Pippin's Harley is the consummate church showman, with the skilled delivery of a seasoned comic who can spin a yarn like nobody's business.
Tim Wilson completes the ensemble as the group's pianist, on work release in his striped prison uniform.
The Glory Bugles: 800 Miles Off Broadway. By Nan Gurley, Bonnie Keen, Stevan Pippin and Wayne Gurley. Choreographed by Marci Murphree and The Glory Bugles. Presented at the Andrew Johnson Theatre at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. September 8-11. Visit the website at www.GloryBugles.com.