Critic's Choice: Rumor-Mongering and Pageant-Hopping in Nashville

They're dishing up some tasty Rumors at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre - along with the bountiful buffet of Southern delicacies - while at Donelson's The Larry Keeton Theatre, the last two performances of Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest are served up this weekend, and the national touring company of Mamma Mia! winds up its weeklong stand at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall. And the intrepid Nashville Repertory Theatre Professional Interns present their very own production of Gruesome Playground Injuries.

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-42516-20160425

Opening this weekend in Clarksville, Roxy Regional Theater, in a multimedia partnership with CDE Lightband, will combine the music from a multi-platinum album turned into one of the most notable Broadway musicals of recent vintage, brought to life via the creativity of artists from Austin Peay State University and a dozen high-energy performers from around the USA for an eagerly anticipated production of Green Day's American Idiot, opening April 29 in Clarksville.

Boldly taking the American musical where it has never gone before, Green Day's American Idiot comes to the Roxy stage as a high-energy rock opera of youthful disillusionment - and audiences are urged to brace themselves for impact. Struggling to find meaning in a post-9/11 world, the show's three protagonists - Johnny (Joseph Spinelli), Tunny (Charles Robinson) and Will (Ryan Alvarado) - flee the constraints of their hometown for the thrills of city life. Their paths quickly diverge when Tunny enters the armed forces, Will is called back home to attend familial responsibilities, and Johnny's attention becomes divided by a seductive love interest and a hazardous new friendship.

Based on Green Day's Grammy Award-winning multi-platinum album, American Idiot was written by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, with music by Green Day and lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong.
Tom Thayer helms the Roxy Regional Theatre's production as director and he brings back Philadelphia choreographer Jenn Rose, who added her fresh and innovative work to last year's production of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins. American Idiot will boast an impressive multimedia installation by CDE Lightband, with the set designed and executed by students from the Department of Art + Design at Austin Peay State University, led by professor Scott Raymond.

Green Day's American Idiot also features Ryan Bowie as St. Jimmy, Alyssa V. Gomez as Whatsername, Allison Kelly as Heather and Sarita Nash as Extraordinary Girl, along with Patrick Beasley, Michael C. Brown, Allison Ferebee, Leigh Martha Klinger, Emily Rourke and Chris Shore.

The hard-working Nashville Repertory Theatre's Professional Interns present Rajiv Joseph's quirky and dark love story - Gruesome Playground Injuries - tonight and Saturday night at Nashville Public Television's Studio A.

Gruesome Playground Injuries is described as an engaging drama that follows childhood friends Kayleen and Doug (played by Lacy Hartselle and Fred Brown) over the course of 30 years of physical and emotional bumps and bruises. Kayleen and Doug have an unbreakable bond that is stitched up over 30 years through hospital rooms, nurses' offices and an ice skating rink. Whether they are eight or 38 they always seem to be recovering from some self-inflicted, almost masochistic trauma. They form a unique, but loyal friendship through their pain.

Kate Prosser directs. The show runs Friday, April 29 and Saturday, April 30 at 7 p.m. Tickets are a suggested $10 donation, or $5 for actors and students, and can be purchased online at or by calling (615) 349-3223. Designers of the production are Corwin Amyx and Erin Murphy (scenic designers), Rebecca Schafer (costumes), Clayton Landiss (lighting), Taylor Russell (sound and scenic charge artist), and Kate Prosser (properties). Technical director is Corwin Amyx.

Neil Simon's Rumors opened last night 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.

Britt Byrd takes on the challenging role of Carnelle Scott for the final time on Saturday night in The Larry Keeton Theatre's production of Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest - the first presentation of a non-musical at The Keeton in more than four years. Show-only tickets are just $10 for the final two performances!'s Nashville senior contributing editor Jeffrey Ellis (that would be me, of course) helms the production of Henley's classic Southern Gothic script that is filled with laughter and pathos in what the director describes "a uniquely Southern take on modern manners and morals."

Byrd is joined in the cast by Katherine Morgan (Morticia in Circle Players' The Addams Family and co-host of this year's Midwinter's First Night) as Carnelle's cousin, Elain Rutledge, a Natchez socialite who won the Miss Firecracker title at the age of 17; Michael Adcock (who just completed a run as Huey in Arts Center of Cannon County's Memphis the Musical) as Elain's brother, the ne'er-do-well Delmount Williams, who "has a very checkered past"; and Amber Boyer, a longtime Keeton Theatre favorite, as Popeye Jackson, the delightfully daft seamstress who helps sew up Carnelle's beauty pageant dreams while nursing a crush on Delmount. Rebekah Stogner, who was in Picnic last season, plays pageant coordinator - and head Jaycette - Tessy Mahoney, while Kurt Jarvis (who garnered critical acclaim last season in ACT 1's Take Me Out) takes on the challenge of Mac Sam, the syphilitic carnie whose animal magnetism makes him all the more iconoclastic.

Since it would be tacky of me to review my own show (don't think I didn't try), here's something from my "official" director's note: "Come go with me on a sentimental journey back to a hot and sticky, sultry and sweaty late June day in downstate Mississippi. We're heading to the town of Brookhaven where, for years, its citizens have looked forward to the 4th of July and the crowning of the county's exemplar of feminine beauty, class, grace and refinement: Miss Firecracker. Carnelle Scott has been hard at work in preparation for the pageant at the town's fairgrounds where annually the local Jaycees select the district's entry into the upcoming Miss Mississippi pageant held up in Vicksburg in just a couple of weeks.

"Sure, Carnelle is a bigger-than-life character (and isn't that what we all want for the aspiring beauty queens in plays about a Southern summer?) whose exploits are often too much for her small-town neighbors, and her cousins Elain Rutledge and Delmount Williams may be better suited to the Southern Gothic plays of Tennessee Williams...but Carnelle and company may be closer to the truth, more like the people we know and love, than Williams' high-strung dreamers. Carnelle, Elain, Delmount and their pal Popeye Jackson are high-strung, for certain, and they are definitely dreamers, but they are more accessible to today's audience members with their forthright demeanors, outspokenness and all the qualities with which we can all identify."

The farewell tour of the ABBA supermusical Mamma Mia! continues its run at TPAC through Sunday, giving audience four more chances to see the tremendously fun and frothy show before it moves on. Mamma Mia is the ultimate feel-good show that has audiences coming back again and again, and is back on tour after its recent Broadway closing. You won't want to miss the show that combines all of ABBA's greatest hits with an enchanting tale of love, laughter and friendship. It will have you dancing in your seat, for sure!

What did we think of the show's 2016 first night in Nashville? "If confession is indeed good for the soul - and I am assured that it is - let me get today's confessional out of the way by admitting to something, to essentially come out of the closet about it: I love ABBA! I'm not necessarily fanatical about my devotion to the Swedish super group (I would never let down my guard enough to be so described), but nothing makes me happier than being immersed in a world filled with their music, no matter how silly (the term "silly old man" rattles me to my core) some would judge me to be.

"Make no mistake about it: the current production of Mamma Mia!, the musical theater hit now onstage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall is just as entertaining, just as over-the-top in all its ABBAesque glory that audiences cannot help but be awestruck by the sheer theatricality of the piece, enthralled by the cavalcade of songs that provide the show's score and delighted by the efforts of the company's talented and eager-to-please and generally eye-poppingly gorgeous ensemble.

"Me? Well, just because I had tears in my eyes the very moment Sarah Smith and Laura Michelle Hughes, who were shortly joined by the production's leading lady Erin Fish, broke into song with "Dancing Queen," perhaps the apotheosis of a disco anthem - which instantly transported me back to the days of my own jaded youth when anything and everything seemed possible and despite too many cocktails that led to clouded judgments and poor decision making, I (and my coterie of friends) had never felt more alive and vibrant - you necessarily shouldn't assume that a rave review would follow my tearful response. With me, you can never judge what an emotional outburst will ultimately deliver. However, if you did presume to know that I liked the show, you may count yourself among the winners of this particular game-show worthy segment of life: I loved it (again - for the fourth or fifth time, at least)!"

Director Jonah M. Jackson's Picasso at the Lapin Agile continues its run at Brentwood's Towne Centre Theatre this weekend, featuring a cast of stage veterans and newcomers to TCT.

Steve Martin's comedy is set in a Parisian bar at the beginning of the 20th century (1904 to be precise), the play imagines a comical encounter between Pablo Picasso (played by Daniel Morgan) and Albert Einstein (Will Miranne), both of whom are in their early twenties and fully aware of their amazing potential. In addition to the two historical figures, the play is also populated with an amusingly incontinent barfly, a gullible yet lovable bartender, a wise waitress, along with a few surprises that trounce in and out of the Lapin Agile. Jackson's cast includes Andrew Johnson, Phil Brady, Emily Eytchison, Gracie Smith, Randal Cooper, Christopher Jennings, Jacqueline Smoak and Bowd Beal.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile runs through May 7. Tickets may be purchased online at, by email at or by calling (615) 221-1174. Show time is at 8 p.m. for evening performances and 2:30 p.m. for Sundays. Doors open 30 minutes prior to curtain. Tickets are $16 for students, $18 for seniors 60 and over, and $20 for adults. Purchase a specially priced Thursday 4-pack of tickets online and get four tickets for only $60, a deal available online only. Group rates are also available.

Up in Crossville, Lori Fischer and Don Chaffer's new musical, The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers, continue its run through May 28, 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 arePatty 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