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Review: Oh, Brother! MAY WE ALL: A New Country Musical Cast and Characters Deserve a Better Book

"New Country Musical" Plays TPAC's Polk Theatre Through July 17

Review: Oh, Brother! MAY WE ALL: A New Country Musical Cast and Characters Deserve a Better Book
Bligh Voth as Jenna Coates in May We All: A New Country Musical
- photos by Jeremy Daniel

Tennesseans are a proud lot: we're just as likely to pitch a fit about our favorite whisky as we are to get up in your face about our favorite football team; we consider Dolly Parton a saint and claim Oprah Winfrey as one of our own. We're very particular about our barbecue and our mama's pecan pie is better than anyone else's and don't even try to come between us and a plate of our favorite biscuits. There is nothing better on a steamy summer afternoon than a glass of iced tea made with water from the artesian springs that give my hometown its name and we are as likely to put our crazy relatives out on the front porch for all the world to see as we are to cover up their peculiarities by relegating them to the attic.

Yet, we Tennesseans venerate our history and cherish our heritage even while always looking toward the future: it's just how we - and our people - have always been. Outsiders shouldn't pigeonhole us because of the way we talk or treat us like slack-jawed yokels just because you think we're inferior or backward. We don't cotton to that.

Be that as it may, we can spot a phony Tennessee accent by the way the speaker pronounces the name of our capital city. For natives, it's "Nashvul," thank you very much, and nothing grates on us more than someone who puts the emphasis on - and elongates - the "ville" in our name. So why in the ever-loving hell didn't some local actor speak up and tell the director the preferred way to say the name of the city that is repeated ad infinitum throughout the course of the two hours of May We All, "A New Country Musical" now playing Tennessee Performing Arts Center's James K. Polk Theatre through July 17.

A jukebox musical featuring songs from a plethora of country music artists, May We All has all the charm of a pedal-tavern powered by a dozen drunk "woo-woo" girls debauching themselves all the way down Broadway, while displaying all the emotional complexity and dramatic intensity of a rejected script from a Hallmark Network Christmas movie. And somebody's got some explaining to do about why the people of fictional Harmony, Tennessee, have such horrid accents, dress like extras from The Dukes of Hazzard, circa 1979, and act like they don't have the sense God gave a fool when it comes to staying current on what's happening in the news, particularly in regard to the music business.

Review: Oh, Brother! MAY WE ALL: A New Country Musical Cast and Characters Deserve a Better Book
Bligh Voth and Heidi Blickenstaff

Presented with as much hoopla as hope, May We All is designed to be the musical that captures the feeling and tone of Nashville - seemingly in much the same way as the now defunct ABC television series Nashville once did - but falls far short of its goal by creating characters that draw on every stereotype you can imagine. Everyone in Harmony is rabidly interested in what goes on in Nashville, which is presumably a couple of hours away, but acts as if they're so afraid of life in the big, bad city that they know little about the actual things that happen there.

Troy Britton Johnson and Todd Johnson, the co-writing brothers who provide the book for May We All (along with playwright Eric Pfeffinger) would do well to actually visit Music City, get to know the people and to appreciate that which truly sets our town and state apart before sitting down to write a script that is inauthentic and too predictable by half.

How inauthentic is the script by the brothers Johnson? In one scene, set in a church, three women wear Daisy Duke jeans short-shorts (which would never happen in any smalltown church in Tennessee ever), banners hanging in the "gymnacafetorium" at Harmony High proclaims the "women's basketball team" and the boys' track team as state runners-up (Marsha Blackburn would rip out her teased and tousled hair by the roots if a girls team was referred to as "women" and very few small towns compete in track and field in Tennessee) in earlier years and the promise of a recording studio in the town is enough to reverse its economic downturn. Of course, if they wanted to be truly authentic, someone would be manufacturing meth in their trailer over by the railroad and there wouldn't be a character in his 20s with the name of "Wilbur."

Furthermore, there is a not a loving family anywhere in the Volunteer State who would allow a beloved child to leave home for two years and never see them or talk to them - it just ain't gonna happen, guys! - any Tennessee mama worth her weight in fried chicken would walk to Nashville from any corner of the state to check on her baby girl. Also, everyone has a phone and, believe me, they know how to use it to call, text, email and even perform complicated procedures. Tennesseans are not ignorant hayseeds, we don't stock our fridges with "RC Colas and Moon Pies," nor are we anything like the Whittakers of Odd, West Virginia.

Review: Oh, Brother! MAY WE ALL: A New Country Musical Cast and Characters Deserve a Better Book
Lauren Pritchard and company

What does work about May We All? The amazingly talented ensemble of actors and musicians who bring the show to life onstage and who perform its score with confidence, alacrity and power are impressive and deserving of praise. Bligh Voth is a particular stand-out as the show's heroine Jenna Coates who comes back home after two years away and sets the improbable series of events that provides the script's "conflict" its impetus.

Broadway veterans Lauren Pritchard (the Jackson, Tennessee, native was a member of the original Broadway cast of Spring Awakening and just last Sunday made an appearance on the 75th annual Tony Awards), Heidi Blickenstaff (most recently seen as Mary Jane in Jagged Little Pill), Brandon J. Ellis (Once, Bandstand, Company) and Ryan Link (Wonderland, Hair, Rent) have the career bona fides to lead a show on a journey to New York, and they have superb support in this production from regional actors who have both the talent and ambition to take a show to greater heights. Unfortunately, as it is now written, May We All is not the vehicle for their Broadway dreams.

Voth has a gorgeous voice and she has amazing stage presence, but the show's costume designer Lex Liang ages her dramatically with an unflattering collection of "fashion" that reeks of caricature, and the wig (its "design" is credited to Jason Hayes) she wears looks like it is from the "Jaclyn Smith collection" from the heyday of Charlie's Angels. Voth is well-paired with Matt Manuel (his performance of "Jolene" is one of the show's musical highlights) as her high school sweetheart Dustin, with whom she is reunited on her visit home, despite the fact the pair hasn't spoken since she left town for the bright lights of Music City.

Review: Oh, Brother! MAY WE ALL: A New Country Musical Cast and Characters Deserve a Better Book
Brandon J. Ellis, Bligh Voth, Matt Manuel and company

Pritchard commands the stage every time she claims the spotlight and she delivers her musical numbers with finesse; her duets with Ellis (as her longtime boyfriend Joe) show the audience how things are done. The interactions between Pritchard and Ellis are charmingly real and accessible. Blickenstaff, Link and Patsy Detroit (as daughter Kylie) shine on "Why Haven't I Heard From You" during the first act, while Act Two's "We Were Rich" - which adds Voth to the family dynamic - is delightful. Still, thanks to the problems with the show's book, it's hard to see them as a true family unit.

The production's more pleasing, even winning, attributes include its superb scenic design by Nate Bertone, which provides the ideal backdrop for the show's various locales, beautifully illuminated by Zach Blaine's lighting design. Cody Spencer's sound design is laudable, to be certain, and director Shelley Butler keeps the action moving along at a well-paced clip (transitions in Act One are particularly noteworthy) and there is chemistry among many of her cast members.

Review: Oh, Brother! MAY WE ALL: A New Country Musical Cast and Characters Deserve a Better Book
Elliott Robinson and company in
May We All: A New Country Musical

Furthermore, May We All lacks one vital musical theater necessity: None of the songs seem to grow out of the action playing out in front of you. In musical theater, it is essential for songs to come to life when the emotions of the players become so big, so powerful and overwhelming that they can only express themselves in song and in dance. To that point, William Carlos Angulo's choreography is energetic and peripatetic, but seems rather incongruous in this musical's settings. His yee-haw hip-hop dance moves tend to steal focus more often than not.

For audiences longing to see "a new country musical" that more accurately depicts life in these parts, perhaps we will have to wait for the musical we hope Dolly Parton is writing about her own fascinating life, or maybe someone will take the music catalogue and compelling stories of The Chicks and transform them into a Broadway musical that could rank among the best. Or there is the possibility that the Kirkpatrick brothers - Wayne and Karey - of Something Rotten and Mrs. Doubtfire fame, will write another of their crowd-pleasing musicals that will make us proud. We can dream.

May We All. Written by Troy Britton Johnson and Todd Johnson and Eric Pfeffinger. Featuring songs by Florida Georgia Line, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Dolly Parton, Little Big Town, Old Dominion, Brooks & Dunn, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Keith Urban, The Chicks, John Denver and more. Directed by Shelley Butler. Choreographed by William Carlos Angulo. Musical direction by Geoffrey Ko. Stage managed by E. Sara Barnes. Presented by Lively McCabe Entertainment and Cuzbro Productions, et al. At James K. Polk Theatre, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through July 17. For tickets, call (615) 782-4040 or go to www.tpac.org.




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 launched... (read more about this author)


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