Seattle Review: Play It By Heart at Village Theatre

First a disclaimer: I am an avid fan of new musicals. I love seeing them, and helping to develop them. The show currently playing at Village Theatre/> is most definitely a new musical, and has a lot of work to be done. While I could do what many reviewers do and review the show as if it has been around for 20 years and is in it's final form, I'm not going to. The show is (hopefully) not in it's final draft, and has probably been changing daily until opening night. An insightful and grounded review is much more helpful to a new musical than a totally biased and obligatory one. Audiences must realize that they're going to see a new musical, not a final product, which is part of the excitement in buying the ticket.

With that, Village Theatre is presenting an entertaining, if somewhat flawed new musical full of heart and soul, the backbone of country music. Set to a country score, Play it by Heart features a lush and authentic sound full of gospel, soul and heart (led by music director Tim Symons/>). Play it by Heart focuses on the Jasper family, who has had a long and illustrious career in country music. When Jeannine, a 40-something has-been, is asked to start recording a more fresh country music sound (think Shania Twain meets Britney Spears), things start to get messy. When she refuses, the record label gets her sister, Jamie Lynn, to record the CD and they drop Jeannine. We later come to find out a soap opera-esque family secret, crises ensue, and all is resolved by the end in true musical theatre fashion.

Most of the songs in show are presented as "performances" at different venues, which works for the most part, but the show needs to rely on the songs for more dramatic effect to help move the plot. A show like Dreamgirls has lots of "performance" songs, but really only sees part of many of them, or action is happening backstage during the numbers. Not surprisingly, the three best songs in this show were plot-driven. The best song in the show, which also had a well-deserved extended applause, was "If It Wasn't For Me," a yodeling duet between Jeannine and Naomi. But the best theatrical moment of the show came in Jeannine's establishing song, "What's Wrong With This Picture?" Sung alone in her tour bus while signing a pathetic number of headshots, not only is it a beautiful song, but it helps to develop Jeannine as a woman not happy with her surroundings.

But right now, the show is in a strange place where it's trying to use songs that can double as plot devices as well as performance numbers, meaning the songs Jeannine is performing in her concerts are also relating to her personal life. It only actually works to it's full potentional once in the show, but the concept is a good one. Hopefully they'll be able to develop it a little more if this show is to have another production.

The music, by David Spangler, Jerry Taylor and R. T. Robinson, is perfect. You couldn't ask for more from the score. Always tuneful and catchy, the songs drive the show. What is often the case in musicals conforming to a specific style of music is that it sounds fake, or forced. These writers are country professionals, and the music sounds that way. The music is authentic, soul-stirring and effective. But because of the amount of unnecessary "performance" numbers, the show is almost three hours long. The book, by Brian Yorkey/>, is fine and does it's job as well as it can. The only big problem with the show is the sappy storyline that sometimes overturns the great momentum this show gets going for itself. Yorkey has all of his plot points in the right place: he's chosen the best act break, the action rises to a nice climax; but the problem is that the story is just too much like a daytime soap. Maybe Yorkey is sticking too closely to R.T. Robinson's blah concept.

Leading the cast is the surprisingly talented Gail Bliss as Jeannine Jasper. Bliss, a country music recording artist, is actually quite the musical theatre performer. When a music star is brought in to star in a musical, it is a bad idea many times, but (thankfully) Bliss has the vocal chops expected of a recording artist, as much acting ability as anyone on that stage, and more stage presence than most. Her voice soars in this music, but she seemed to be holding back a bit. One would like to see her in Annie Get Your Gun. She is simply a naturally gifted and magnetic performer who has found the perfect vehicle.

Supporting Ms. Bliss is a talented ensemble cast of Seattle/>/> theatre heavyweights. Kat/>ie E. Tomlinson is Jamie Lynn, the sister of Bliss' Jeannine. Showing an incredible range, Tomlinson shifts here from a legit soprano role in The Secret Garden to a belting country-rock role here. While her sound isn't the county music type, she does her best to fake it, and does well. Sharva Maynard is the momma Jasper, and does so with vigor and conviction. She grabs every acting moment she can and finds all the right nuances. At times the show is like a country music Gypsy, and Maynard has just enough intensity to pull it off. As the father, John Patrick Lowrie gives the best performance of the night, stealing almost every scene he is in. He is the ideal recovering alcoholic/supporting father. Joshua M. Bott gives a quirky and funny performance as Ari Gold, the record label attorney from New York/>/>. His transition into Nashville/>/> life was a highlight of the evening. And Jim Gall, though not the most fabulous singer, turns in an fine portrayal of Jeannine's high school sweetheart.

Director/choreographer Steve Tomkins does a fine job creating the Nashville/>/> feel for the show, but some of his choreography is clunky. But the musical staging is very effective at times, especially in the true musical theatre songs. He knows how to build the tension in a scene and does the best job he can keeping the pace going on such a long show.

Design-wise, the show is strong in all departments. The lighting is the star for this show, and Alex Berry does a wonderful job utilizing moving lights and haze to create a real concert atmosphere. Moving lights are always a real crowd-pleaser and are a nice addition to shows like this. Sharing the spotlight with Berry is costume designer Karen Ledger, who takes Brian Yorkey's term "Nashvegas" and runs with it. The costumes are sequined from top to bottom perfectly over the top. The set design by Edie Whitsett is sparse yet appropriate, and incorporates the band into the design very well. Nothing too overindulgent or overambitious. The only awkward part of the design (though not sure if it's lights or set) was a glowing tour bus made out of chord-lights that was to act as a backdrop for all the tour bus scenes. The sound was somewhat flawed in that the audience couldn't really hear the singers when they were in "performance" songs. But it really didn't matter that much, since the lyrics aren't driving the story, we don't necessarily need to hear them. And of course there were the unavoidable opening night glitches.

Overall, you've got to take the good with the bad. Not all new musicals are going to come out like Hairspray. I'm glad that Village Theatre/> is willing to take risks on new musicals, as it's companies like Village that will help keep the American musical going strong. And it's nice to see a show that lives up to it's title: this show has plenty of heart.

-Ethan John Thompson

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From This Author Ethan John Thompson

Ethan John Thompson has been working professionally in the theatre for almost 20 years. He has worked as a director, actor, stage manager and producer (read more...)

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