Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2004

This piece of fluff is created by Ted Swindley, mastermind behind Always…Patsy Cline and several other revue-type shows on country themes. I am already on record as stating that I am not a country music fan, and I just don’t understand the popularity of these “all-songs-no-script” kinda shows. But I had actually enjoyed the production of Always… at the Mac-Haydn last season, and I carefully selected as my date for the evening a friend who likes country music, so I gave this show every possible opportunity to please me.

The premise of The Honky Tonk Angels is that three god ole gals, tired of their hum-drum lives, all head to Nashville to realize their dreams of being country-western singers. The first act introduces us to Angela, Darlene, and Sue Ellen and ends with them meeting aboard the bus to Nashville. The second act takes place a few weeks later at their final performance as The Honky Tonk Angels at an establishment called Hillbilly Heaven. The plot is wafer-thin and only exists as an excuse for these three ladies to belt out C&W classics like Coal Miner’s Daughter, 9 to 5, Harper Valley PTA, and Rocky Top. In other words you had better have three knock ’em dead singers if you want to succeed with this show.

The Theater Barn, as usual, has cast three young unknowns. They are attractive and energetic, but they are not star material. And two of them are corn-fed Midwesterners with about as much sense of the cadences of country music as a sorry old Yankee like myself.

Daniel Haley is billed as the director and choreographer, and he has coached the actresses into relentless perkiness. I’m no expert, but country music strikes me as more gritty than perky. If I were Haley I wouldn’t even claim credit for the choreography, which is minimal and amateurish. To add to the problem, these three ladies are obviously not dancers.

Tina Fuentes plays Angela, the married mother of three longing to escape from the drudgery of childrearing in a double-wide trailer. Kristin Stewart is the virginal Darlene, stuck taking care of her aging widowed father somewhere in the Mississippi delta. And Ajna Austin is Sue Ellen, a twice-divorced Texan working in Los Angeles as secretary to a lecherous boss. Fuentes is a feisty belter and a decent comedienne. She is a hoot in her high heels and even higher hair singing Harper Valley PTA. Stewart is a bubbly blonde with a lot of stage presence, but I enjoyed her more in her Act I numbers when she was called upon to act and sing more naturally. Austin comes across as the weaker link, although she acquits herself well singing so popular standards such as 9 to 5, These Boots Where Made for Walking, and Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.

Kenneth H. Jones is the musical director and the pianist in the five-piece band which accompanies the singers. In Act I they are more or less hidden behind a curtain, which makes it rather surprising when Jones and the other guys come in with some back-up harmony (there are no men on the stage, where are those voices coming from?) In Act II they are in full view and even get introduced to the audience. Jones and company sound fine and seem to be having fun in their cowboy hats and jeans.

The Theater Barn has the technical talent and capability to produce shows that really look great. In the past I have raved about Abe Phelps’ sets and Allen Phelps’ lights, but here they are disappointing. I know these gals aren’t living or performing in glamorous surroundings, but this is hardly realistic theatre and the sets could have some charm and humor to them, especially the Act II Hillbilly Heaven set.

I felt the same way about the costumes by Jacci Fredenberg. They were tackier and less humorous than they needed to be. If there wasn’t the budget to make them splendid, perhaps there could have been fewer of them? There were many times when a hat and a prop could have easily have substituted for an entire change of clothes. Also, since the actresses have three very different body types, identical outfits tend to call attention to those differences rather than minimizing them and making each lady look her best.

I am sorry to see the arrival of body mikes at the Theater Barn. I really haven’t paid attention to whether area mikes were used in the past, I know handhelds have been, but I have seen and heard fabulous musicals at the Barn without body mikes. The space is intimate enough that any good trained singer should be able to make him or herself heard. Some Native American tribes used to believe that a piece of your soul was snatched with every photograph you posed for. I believe much the same thing about microphones – they grab your voice and fling it back out through these big black boxes sounding all horrible and distorted. And then they crackle and whistle and honk. Whenever possible, I like to hear my theatre unmiked.

What I want to know is why shows like this are written in the first place. I would guess it is because someone somewhere finds them entertaining. I see that Mr. Swindley has a regular cottage business going cranking out glorified revues (even, heaven help us, a sequel to this piece called The Honky Tonk Angels Holiday Spectacular), and the genre has certainly become ubiquitous around here – Swing! next up at the Mac-Haydn and Beguiled Again later in the Theater Barn season are both plot-less entertainments consisting of a bunch of songs sharing some common theme (swing era music and the works of Rodgers and Hart respectively). They can be fun, but they are certainly not theatre.

The Honky Tonk Angels runs through July 11 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs just under two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004

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