By Pam Harbaugh
VERO BEACH — After a season filled with provocative drama and lavish musicals, Riverside Theatre lets its hair down with Honky Tonk Angels, a juke box musical filled with country music and down-home humor.
The idea here is that three women, each living unfulfilling lives, impulsively decide to follow their dreams and head to Nashville. While on a Greyhound bus to their idea of musical Valhalla, they meet. A couple of shared bologna sandwiches later, they agree, finally, to form the Honky Tonk Angels and try to make it big in country music.
Writer Ted Swindley, who continues to score big with his earlier work, Always…Patsy Cline, knows his audience wants recognizable country music and relatable characters, so he fills his show with more than two dozen songs and plenty of reasons to laugh. However, a repetitious theme of following one’s dreams become a burden to the storyline. Theme is unnecessary here. We want the music. We want the humor.
Certainly, Riverside’s production amplifies the music and the humor. Directed with energy and invention by DJ Salisbury, Honky Tonk Angels turns into a lively showcase of three wonderful performers — Bailey Purvis, Kylan Ritchie and Natalie Charle Ellis, who does the heavy comic lifting here. Add to that a country band led by Broadway music director Brent-Alan Huffman and all those Bubbas and Daisy Maes hidden in your American heart will land in hog heaven.
The show opens with a beautiful, harmonic “I’ll Fly Away,” then lights come up and you see three homes. There is the Waxahachie, Tex. double-wide trailer of Angela Bodine (Ellis), the mother to a couple of hellions and wife of Bubba, a truck-driver who’d rather go to a tractor pull than go out for dinner with his wife. A Broadway performer (original cast member of Beetlejuice and School of Rock) Ellis has such a strong voice that she can keep tune while serving up some very funny, broad and bawdy humor in classic Carol Burnett fashion. What’s especially appealing about her performance is how she lets the audience in on the jokes, like when she purposely sprays starch on her husband’s jock strap or lets the iron burn his shirt while sarcastically singing “Stand By Your Man.” But nothing can top her yelling at her kids to “put it down” because “the chainsaw is daddy’s toy!”
Next up is Darlene (Ritchie), a young woman growing up in the Mississippi Delta after her father lost his job as a coal miner. Darlene’s mother has died and her father all but ignores her. There’s a sweetness to this character as portrayed by Ritchie, who is, remarkably, only 17 years old. Her voice is velvety, tuneful and expressive. Of course, she sings “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” But Ritchie’s flawless performance of “Ode to Billy Joel” is intoxicating, filled with quiet feeling and remorse especially on the re-worked words “There was a virus going ‘round, mama caught it and she died last spring.”
Then there is Sue Ellen Smith Barney Fife (Purvis), a twice-divorced secretary from Texas who has moved to Los Angeles, is plagued by her boss’ unwanted advances, and sings “9 to 5.” Purvis, who delivered a strong Janis Joplin in Riverside’s 2019 production of Beehive, really shines in her fun performance here of “These Boots are Made for Walking” and “Cornell Crawford.”
The second act is where the show really hits its stride. Now set in the nightclub called Honky Tonk Heaven, the three appear in a variety of costumes to perform what is their final show. There’s a flashy, Vegas-y appeal to this act. Salisbury and his talented trio finally get a chance to show off some performance pizzazz.
Moreover, you finally get to see the musicians as they appear at the Honky Tonk Heaven nightclub. Where have these musicians been hiding all this time? Then the Honky Tonk Angels appear, now all with big hair and dazzling costumes. Where has all that been hiding all this time? The songs are bigger, funnier and filled with character. There are send-ups galore, including a Minnie Pearl bit, “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” and a lot of teasing the audience.
Ellis shows off even more comic range in “Harper Valley PTA” during which she smokes a cigarette and gets an audience member to hold his hand out so she can use it as an ashtray. She’s also hysterical as a buxom harridan who uses a rolling pin to threaten certain audience members. And the audience loves it.
The country musicians in the ensemble are all first rate: Frank Krevens on slide guitar, Kenny Kosek on fiddle, Tommy Bradford on drums, Manny Moreira on guitar and Kells Nollenberger on bass.
Costume designer Steven Stines and wig designer Christopher Arthur bring out a big array of looks, from simple to over the top funny, but those gold boots need to be sexier and not be so evocative of galoshes.
Sound designer Craig Beyrooti has an especially nice moment when he segues from the birds and creek outdoor sounds to the busy street sounds as the first act scene shifts from the Mississippi Delta to Los Angeles.
Scenic designer Cliff Simon and lighting designer Julie Duro create solid environments for their characters, especially in the second act nightclub (look for the boots festooning the archway).
There was a reason that the old television show Hee Haw had a good healthy run (1969 to 1992). It was a perfect showcase for country irresistible country humor and some “mighty fine pickin’.” You get heapin’ helpings of that in Honky Tonk Angels.
Honky Tonk Angels runs through June 18 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach, Fla. Tickets start at $45. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Wednesdays, select Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Call 772-231-6990 or visit RiversideTheatre.com.
Pam Harbaugh writes for Vero News. This is a version of a review running in VeroNews.com.