Tennesseans are proud: we’re just as likely to give you a tantrum about our favorite whiskey as we are about our favorite football team; we consider Dolly Parton a saint and claim Oprah Winfrey as one of our own. We take great care of our barbecue and our mom’s pecan pie is better than anyone else’s and don’t even try to get between us and a plate of our favorite cookies. There’s nothing better on a hot summer afternoon than a glass of iced tea made with water from the artesian springs that give my hometown its name and we’re as likely to put our parents lunatics on the porch for all to see as we have to conceal their peculiarities by stuffing them in the attic.
Yet we Tennessees revere our history and cherish our heritage while always looking to the future: this is how we – and our people – have always been. Outsiders shouldn’t categorize us for the way we talk or treat like loose-jawed morons just because you think we’re inferior or backward. We don’t cotton to that.
Either way, we can spot a fake Tennessee accent in the way the speaker pronounces the name of our capital city. For locals, it’s “Nashvul”, thank you very much, and nothing annoys us more than someone emphasizing – and lengthening – the “city” of our name. So why in the hell still in love didn’t a local actor step up and tell the director the favorite way to say the repeating town name To infinity throughout the two hours of May we all “A New Country Musical” is now playing at the James K. Polk Theater at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center until July 17.
A musical jukebox with songs from a plethora of country music artists, may we all has all the charm of a pedal tavern fueled by a dozen drunken “woo-woo” girls debauching all along Broadway, while displaying all the emotional complexity and dramatic intensity of a script discarded from a Hallmark Network Christmas Movie. And someone needs to explain why the people of fictional Harmony, Tennessee have such horrible accents, dress like extras from The Dukes of Hazzard, circa 1979, and act like they don’t have the sense that God gave a fool when it comes to keeping up to date with what’s going on in the news, especially when it comes to the music industry.
Presented with as much hype as hope, may we all is set to be the musical that captures the feeling and tone of Nashville – seemingly in the same way as the now-defunct ABC TV series Nashville once – but falls far short of achieving its goal of creating characters that draw on every stereotype you can imagine. Everyone at Harmony is keenly interested in what’s going on in Nashville, which is presumably a few hours away, but acts like they’re so scared of life in the big, bad city that they don’t know. much of what happens there. .
Troy Britton Johnson and Todd Johnson, the co-author brothers who provide the book for may we all (with playwright Eric Pfeffinger) would do well to visit Music City, get to know the people, and appreciate what really sets our city and state apart before sitting down to write an inauthentic, half-too-predictable script.
How inauthentic is the Johnson Brothers script? In one scene, set in a church, three women are wearing Daisy Duke denim shorts (which would never happen in any small town church in Tennessee), banners hang in the “gymnacafetorium” at Harmony High proclaiming “the ‘women’s basketball team’ and the boys’ track team as state runners-up (Marsha Blackburn would rip out her teased, disheveled hair from the roots if a girls’ team were called ‘women’ and very little small towns were competing in track and field in Tennessee years earlier, and the promise of a recording studio in town was enough to reverse the economic crisis. Of course, if they wanted to be truly authentic, someone would be making meth in their trailer by the railroad and there wouldn’t be a character in their twenties with the name “Wilbur.”
Plus, there isn’t a loving family anywhere in the willing state that would allow a beloved child to leave home for two years without ever seeing or talking to him – that’s just not going to happen, the guys ! – any Tennessee mom worth her weight in fried chicken would drive to Nashville from anywhere in the state to watch her baby girl. Plus, everyone has a phone, and believe me, they know how to use it to call, text, email, and even perform complicated procedures. Tennesseans aren’t ignorant hayseeds and we certainly don’t look like the Whittakers of Odd, West Virginia.
What does it work may we all? The incredibly talented ensemble of actors and musicians who bring the show to life on stage and perform its score with confidence, eagerness and power are impressive and deserve praise. Bligh Voth particularly stands out as the series’ heroine, Jenna Coates, who returns home after a two-year absence and dramatizes the unlikely series of events that give impetus to the “conflict” of the storyline.
Broadway veterans Lauren Proctor (the Jackson, Tennessee native was a member of the original Broadway cast of spring awakening and just last sunday made an appearance on the 75e annual Tony Awards), Heidi Blickenstaff (most recently seen as Mary Jane in Little shredded pill), Brandon J. Ellis (Once, Bandstand, Company) and Ryan Link (Wonderland, Hair, Rental) have the bona fide career to lead a show on a trip to New York, and they have superb support in this production from regional actors who have both the talent and the ambition to take a show to many highest peaks. Unfortunately, as it is now written, may we all is not the vehicle of their Broadway dreams.
Voth has a gorgeous voice and incredible stage presence, but the show’s costume designer, Lex Liang, dramatically ages her with an unflattering collection of “fashion” that reeks of caricature, and the wig (her “design” is attributed to Jason Hayes) she wears looks from the “Jaclyn Smith Collection” from the heyday of charlie’s angels. Voth is well paired with Matt Manuel (her performance of “Jolene” is one of the show’s musical highlights) as her high school sweetheart Dustin, whom she is reunited with during her visit home, despite the fact that the couple hasn’t spoken since she left town for the bright lights of Music City.
Proctor commands the stage whenever she claims the limelight and she delivers her musical numbers with finesse; her duets with Ellis (as her longtime boyfriend Joe) show audiences just how things are. The interactions between Proctor and Ellis are delightfully real and accessible. Blickenstaff, Link and Patsy Detroit (as daughter Kylie) shine on ‘Why Haven’t I Heard From You’ in act one, while act two’s ‘We Were Rich’ – which adds Voth to the family dynamic – is delicious. Still, thanks to issues with the show’s book, it’s hard to see them as a true family unit.
The production’s most enjoyable, if not winning, attributes include its superb stage design by Nate Bertone, which provides the perfect backdrop for the show’s various locations, beautifully illuminated by Zach Blaine’s lighting design. Cody Spencer’s sound design is commendable, that’s for sure, and director Shelley Butler pushes the action along at a well-paced pace (the transitions in the first act are particularly notable) and there’s chemistry between several of its actors.
Otherwise, may we all misses a vital necessity for musical theatre: none of the songs seem to emerge from the action unfolding in front of you. In musical theatre, it is essential that the songs come to life when the emotions of the actors become so big, so powerful and overwhelming that they can only be expressed in song and dance. At this point, William Carlos Angulo’s choreography is energetic and itinerant, but seems rather incongruous in the sets of this musical. His hip-hop yee-haw dance moves tend to steal attention most often.
For audiences eager to see “a new country musical” that more accurately portrays life in these parts, we may have to wait for the musical we hope Dolly Parton writes about her own fascinating life, or maybe someone will take The Chicks’ catalog of gripping music and stories and turn them into a Broadway musical that might rank among the best. Or it’s possible that the Kirkpatrick brothers – Wayne and Karey – from something rotten and Mrs. Doubtfire fame, will write another of their musicals that will please the public and make us proud. We can dream.
May we all. Written by Troy Britton Johnson and Todd Johnson and Eric Pfeffinger. Featuring songs from 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. Choreography by William Carlos Angulo. Musical direction by Geoffrey Ko. Scene directed by E. Sara Barnes. Presented by Lively McCabe Entertainment and Cuzbro Productions, et al. At the James K. Polk Theater, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Until July 17. For tickets, call (615) 782-4040 or visit www.tpac.org.