CRITIC'S CHOICE: The (Summer) Game's Afoot, Y'all!

Is it just me or is everyone else amazed by how quickly 2016 seems to be moving - in a theatrical sense, at least - and what with Memorial Day Weekend upon us, we're gobsmacked (gobsmacked, I tell ya!) by the wide range of productions offered up by Tennessee theater companies this weekend. Included are Street Theatre Company's Assassins, Center for the Arts' 42nd Street down in Murfreesboro, Rumors out at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre and the final performance of The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers at Cumberland County Playhouse.

And next weekend will be even crazier when at least 235 new productions open, including Studio Tenn's eagerly anticipated West Side Story at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center (starring 2016 First Night Most Promising Actor Lissa De Guzman as Maria), Circle Players' The Little Mermaid, Pull-Tight Players' The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Renaissance Players' Mulan Jr., Music City Theatre Company's Psycho Beach Party and so much more. The game is afoot, y'all.

It's yet another busy weekend for live theater in Tennessee and now's your chance to catch up on some terrific shows. Of course, we're always ready to help you plan your weekend activities with BWW Nashville's Critics Choice, offering up a compendium of what's available, what we recommend you see, and - in the cases of show's we've seen already - snippets of our reviews to help you make up your mind!

And if you're one of those people who plans ahead (they do exist, I am assured by people in the know), you might take a look at our weekly compilation of all things theatrical to be found in Nashville's Theater Calendar: /nashville/article/Nashvilles-Theater-Calendar-52316-20160523

Jason Tucker's rendition of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins continues at Holy Trinity Community Church this weekend. With a book by John Weidman and based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., Assassins centers around the men and women who attempted (successfully or not) to assassinate United States Presidents. The story unfolds through Sondheim's revue­style music that changes styles based on the eras in which the assassinations occur.

Here's our take on the show: "Stephen Sondheim's Assassins - his musical treatment of the history of presidential assassinations in America - remains one of the most compelling and intriguing works to be found in the musical theater canon, focusing on a veritable rogue's gallery of historic figures whose infamy lives on decades after their horrific actions first gained them the notoriety they so often pursued in their disparate, yet somehow oddly connected, lives.

"Now onstage at Nashville's Holy Trinity Community Church, in a scintillating and compelling new production from Street Theatre Company, the story of Assassins remains as potent as it ever was and director Jason Tucker and his outstanding ensemble of actors create a disquieting world of fame-seekers, half-crazed zealots and the misunderstood in order to bring the stories of these miscreants to life onstage.

"Although their histories are rife with political intrigue, misguided ambitions and unchecked and wanton hatred, the characters in Assassins - if they are to succeed at all as musical theatre heroes, or anti-heroes to be more precise - they must somehow be likable, believable in their own despicable realities in order for audiences to take their stories to heart. They may be killers, after all, but you might want to have a beer with them if the opportunity were to present itself to you.

"The responsibility of making these characters accessible to a musical theater audience lies in the script's structure and tone (at times overly earnest, but far more often entertaining and quirky), in the director's concept for his production and in the abilities of the superb actors charged with portraying these mysterious people who, for the most part, have lived along the borders and fringes of American history and culture."

Assassins is at Street Theatre Company, currently in residence at Holy Trinity Community Church (6727 Charlotte Pike), May 20 through June 5. The show is rated PG­13 for strong language and adult themes. Parental guidance and discretion is encouraged. Showtimes are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $16 for students and seniors, and Thursdays are Pay­What­You­Can. Tickets are available by contacting the box office at (615) 554­7414 or by visiting www.streettheatrecompany.org.

Meanwhile, down in Murfreesboro, Center for the Arts' production of 42nd Street continues. Here's a snippet of our review of the show:

"Presenting the tap-heavy show that relies on the skills of its ensemble for its success is a challenge for any theater company, whether it be professional or amateur, and any theater troupe brave enough to take on the daunting task deserves praise for their chutzpah. However, that's not to say that every company should choose to do 42nd Street; on the contrary, you must be certain you have a talent pool deep enough from which to cast the show properly and the financial reserves necessary to provide them with the technical wizardry necessary to pull off such a show.

"The current production of 42nd Street now onstage at Murfreesboro's Center for the Arts is a pleasant enough diversion and director/choreographer Julie Wilcox has assembled an ensemble of performers who do their best to deliver the goods, earnestly and enthusiastically giving life to the wizened yet hopeful characters they portray in the show. With a book written by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, based on the 1932 novel by Bradford Ropes, and featuring the original songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin that date back to the movie musical (with other Warren/Dubin standards added to the mix to beef up the show's musical program), 42nd Street is the definitive Broadway fable, the tale of hard-working, hard-drinking and hard-driven professionals trying to catch lightning in a bottle at a time when $32 a week sounded like a king's ransom to poor, unfortunate, out-of-work hoofers.

"The story is certainly old-fashioned in its way, but riding a wave of nostalgia and harkening back to the heday of the movie musical provides 42nd Street with a notable pedigree that still dazzles audiences, regardless of their vintage, and offers them the chance to time-travel from the relative peaceful confines of their seats in the darkened theater. And it's obvious, from the moment the curtain opens to reveal the ensemble tap dancing their hearts out to the show's opening number - and on to the finale in which director Julian Marsh (played by Mark Thomas, who doubles as musical director of the CFTA production) delivers his rendition of the show's title tune - that audiences love the show despite its obvious shortcomings."

Neil Simon's Rumors continues at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, the fourth production of Simon's acclaimed farce since 1991. This production, directed by Lydia Bushfield, welcomes back two members of the 1991 cast - Martha Wilkinson and Derek Whittaker - along with seven other deft comedians, to breathe life into the play.

Widely regarded as one of the most successful, prolific and performed playwrights in the world, Neil Simon might well be considered the best comedy playwright in American Theater and Nashville audiences at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre will be able to revel in the coming weeks as one of Simon's best-loved plays is brought to life on the miraculous floating stage by a cast of award-winning actors. Simon's Rumors - directed by Lydia Bushfield - stars Martha Wilkinson, Derek Whittaker, Bradley Moore, Joy Tilley-Perryman, Jenny Norris Light, Chase Miller, Charlie Winton, Linda Speir and Mike Scott, who will "not only keep your side splitting, but front and back splitting," promises a press release from Chaffin's Barn.

Here's what we had to say about the opening night performance: "Neil Simon's Rumors - one of the most popular stage farces of the late 20th century - is given its due with the fourth production at Nashville's iconic and I daresay historic Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre. Directed with panache by stage veteran Lydia Bushfield (who, herself, has starred in one of the four productions of Rumors at Chaffin's Barn over the past quarter-century), Simon's broadly drawn characters are brought vividly to life by a cast of capable and very funny actors who know how to land a line, deliver a rejoinder and, when called upon, play the straight man to help a fellow actor out when it comes time for him to shine.

"Rumors is still just as funny as it was the first time I saw it (way back in the late 1980s - Peter Marshall, late of the Hollywood Squares TV game show played Ken Gorman, with Patty McCormack, who created the role of Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, was his wife Chris), even while the script's shortcomings remain as obvious (if not more so, truth be told) as ever.

"Watching Rumors for the first time in years, one cannot help but be struck by how popular entertainment has followed Simon's created - and creative - scenario of entertainingly chaotic adventures among the well-heeled. In fact, it seems that Andy Cohen and Bravo TV may have stolen the plot of Rumors to inspire their Real Housewives brand of reality television. Frankly, if only we'd had a flipped table and accusations of "prostitution whore" hurled onstage, we might indeed be witnessing the latest episode of The Real Housewives of Sneden's Landing."

Showtimes for Rumors are Thursday through Saturday Evenings: Buffet: 6-7:30 p.m., Show: 8 p.m.; Sunday Matinee: Buffet 12 noon, Show: 2 p.m.; Every Thursday Matinee: Doors Open at 11 a.m., with the show at noon. Tickets for Thursday's matinee are only $19 (bring your own lunch or order a box lunch for $8.50 Reservations are required by calling (615) 646-9977.

Up in Crossville, Lori Fischer and Don Chaffer's new musical, The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers, wraps up its run Saturday night, featuring an all-star Cumberland County Playhouse cast that includes Fischer, Weslie Webster, Britt Hancock and Bill Frey. It's all about country music stardom run amok in a fictionalized version of Ashland City, Tennessee.

The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers centers around the Lashley Sisters, a country-singing duo whose star was on the rise (with hit tunes like "Big Boned Dreams, Tiny Tambourines") until the publicity surrounding an accident brought their careers to a screeching halt. It seems Lashley Lee Lashley (Weslie Webster) was driving the band's tour bus while under the influence. Now the girls are back in their hometown of Ashland City, where sister Junie (playwright Lori Fischer) has taken over the family business, The Sparkley Clean Dry Cleaners. She also takes care of her father Lyle (Bill Frey), who's been having trouble remembering things lately. With Lashley fresh out of rehab and Junie up to her elbows in laundry, a professional comeback for the Lashley Sisters seems unlikely. That is, until Pastor Phil (Britt Hancock) of the Third United Separated Harmony Church informs them that Bindy Moss, the church's Funeral Singer, has gone to her eternal rest and asks them to take over the job. Junie pens the unforgettable tune "Bindy, Take A Seat At The Banquet Table (Cause There's No Need For Food Drives In Heaven)" and together with a reluctant Lashley, starts the sisters on a new career path: performing personalized sendoffs for the dearly departed! Will Lashley be able to stay clean and sober? Will Junie be able to juggle her taking care of the business - and her father - while writing her unique funeral songs? And will the Lashley Sisters make it back to Nashville?

Here's our take on the show's opening night performance: "Lori Fischer's The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers does what so many shows before it have attempted: To create a whole 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 the songs that prove their affection and are certain to make you guffaw (more than once even).

"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 healthy 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 manageable 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."

Get ready to walk down the aisle to sidesplitting laughter as Cumberland County Playhouse presents Southern Fried Nuptials, the uproarious sequel to Southern Fried Funeral by Nashville playwrights J. Dietz Osborne and Nate Eppler.

CCP's Producing Director Bryce McDonald directs the production: "I loved working on Southern Fried Funeral last year," he says. "Osborne and Eppler write terrific characters and then give them brilliantly funny - yet completely realistic - dialogue. The wonderful thing about these characters is that all of us who live in the South know people just like them." Artistic Director Britt Hancock adds: "It's really a rare treat to be able to revisit such wonderfully written characters in a whole new story. I certainly hope we can look forward to another sequel in the near future."

Southern Fried Nuptials reacquaints audiences with the Frye family of New Edinburgh, Mississippi, and features Carol Irvin as matriarch Dorothy, Weslie Webster as daughter Harlene, Nicole Hackmann as daughter Sammy Jo, and Daniel Black as Dewey Jr. As the play begins, it's three days before Harlene's wedding to attorney Atticus Van Leer (Britt Hancock). Nerves are running high and it seems Harlene, who has already postponed the wedding three times, in on the verge of postponing again. And although she doesn't know it yet, her wedding coordinator just eloped and moved to Atlanta. To make matters worse, Sammy Jo and her husband Beecham (Jason Ross) are moving in six days, but Sammy Jo still hasn't worked up the nerve to tell the rest of the family. And in the midst of all of this, the sudden appearance of a mysterious man from Harlene's past (Playhouse newcomer Joseph Wilson) brings the already hilarious complications to a whole new level! Rounding out the cast are Patty Payne and Judy Murphy as neighbors Martha Ann and Fairy June, Bill Frey as Vester Pickens and Terri Ritter as last-minute replacement wedding coordinator Ozella Meeks, whose last visit to the Frye house ended up with her getting a pie in the face.



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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis