Online since August 2002

Triple whammy of musical theater in San Diego in September

Published September 2007

By Carol Davis


Honky Tonk Angels
By Ted Swindley
Directed by David Ellenstein

North Coast Repertory Theatre
987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Ste. D
Solana Beach
Through Oct. 7

Book by Terrence McNally
Music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Aherns
From the original novel by E.L. Doctorow
Directed by Brian Wells

Starlight Theatre
2005 Pan American Plaza
Balboa Park
San Diego
Through Sept. 23

The Little Shop of Horrors
Book by Howard Ashman
Music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman
Based on the 1960 film with screenplay by Roger Corman and Charles B. Griffith
Directed and choreographed by Kirby Ward
Musical direction by Terry O'Donnell

Moonlight Stage Productions
Moonlight Amphitheatre
Vale Terrace Park
1200 Vale Terrace
Through Sept. 16

It happens every now and again, especially in the summer when Starlight and Moonlight are producing. Now we're into September and there are still remnants of outdoor theater at both venues for the next few weekends. Frankly, yours truly would much prefer indoors and comfort to the natural surroundings of the outdoors. However, being the good soldier that I am, I did manage to stay warm and even enjoy "Little Shop of Horrors" at Moonlight and "Ragtime" at Starlight. That said, North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, which is not under the stars, is playing host to Ted Swindley's "Honky Tonk Angels." (He also authored "Always ... Patsy Cline.")

Both Starlight and Moonlight are ending their summer seasons, while the North Coast Rep is opening it's 26th season with the upbeat but flawed "Honky Tonk Angels."

This musical is about three young women with a dream. Not surprisingly, they resemble Dolly Parton (Merideth Clark as Sue Ellen), Loretta Lynn (Jenny-Lynn McMillin as Darlene) and Tammy Wynette (Kelly Maguire as Angela). Their meeting on a bus to Nashville is a non-starter as the author's contrivance. But their reasons for leaving their (a) 9 to 5 job as in Sue Ellen's case; (b) nonattentive husband, Bubba, father of her six offspring, as in Angela's case; or (c) taking a breather from her drinking father, loss of her mother and refuge from the death of her boyfriend, who by coincidence jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, is a stretch of the imagination bordering on lack of credulity, especially in the case of Angel and her six kids! But there you have it.

Not withstanding, the three women all have the same vision and that is to sing in Nashville. And by the time they get there, we know their stories, their heartaches and their lives, and we are able to make the connections. The production takes off with the three deciding to form a singing group. They alternate singing and giving a little more insight to their personalities while singing familiar and some not-so-familiar tunes made famous either by their real-life counterparts or others in the industry. In the second act, they are actually performing as The Honky Tonk Angels. It's stereotypical, ofttimes funny and sometimes moving. Overall, however, even though it lacks credibility, it is a crowd-pleaser. The gals are talented and can belt out a tune and on opening night, the audience – with the coaxing of the performers –l; became willing and/or reluctant participants.

Artistic Director David Ellenstein directed this production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival last year with both Clarke and Maguire, who both are very secure in their roles and personalities. Strong vocalists both, they play their respective parts to the hilt. Clarke is a dead ringer lookalike as Parton before implants. She is a standout, especially when she sings her "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'."

Macguire is no slouch, either. She is the spokeswoman, sort of, for the others. She has a great voice and more energy than any mother with six babies should have. She is electricity personified, while McMillin's Loretta Lynn character never quite jelled. There are certainly more than enough comparisons to both Darlene and Loretta's lives. Unfortunately, McMillin looked like the deer in the headlights more often than not. Playwright Swindley did not give her character much to be secure in except at the end.

Honky Tonk Angels'Honky Tonk Angels'

But when, after three months of performing, they then go back to the very lives that led them to Nashville in the first place – well, gimme a break!

Visually, with Beth Novack's costume design and Mike Buckley's lighting design, the production had some semblance of credibility. Marty Burnett, who is a master set designer at the Rep, put together a rather flimsy backdrop for this particular show with sketchy looking props, a few neon signs on either side of the theater walls and a bar stocked with Jim Bean on every shelf (a nice touch) surrounded by pictures of The Grand Ole Oprey Hall of Famers.

Not to be overlooked is the talented band under the direction of W. Brent Sawyer, made up of Dave Rumley on percussion, Dan Sankey on fiddle (love the fiddle) and Oliver Shirley accompanying the girls to the tunes of "Stand By Your Man," "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Ode To Billy Joe," "I Will always Love You," "Harper Valley PTA" and "Amazing Grace," to name a few of the more recognizable tunes.

If you are in the mood for fluff and Honky Tonk, you'll love it.


The first time I saw "Ragtime" (think Scott Joplin) The Musical, starring Brian Stokes Williams as Coalhouse Walker Jr., I fell in love with it. Based loosely on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, which he described as a "false document halfway between fiction and history", it had its off-Broadway tryouts in Toronto and Los Angeles (where I saw it) before it opened on Broadway in 1998. It ran for two years and after 834 performances it closed and was considered a financial flop. It got mixed reviews on the Great White Way, which in essence killed any longevity for the show there. However regional theaters have embraced it, and following its European premiere in a concert performance at the Cardiff International Festival of Music in 2002 it was produced in London in 2003. Maria Friedman starred in the role of Mother, for which she won the 2004 Oliver Award for best actress. It has been produced in Ireland, New Zealand, Japan and Germany. Just a few years, ago Moonlight produced a fine "Ragtime" and this year Starlight is rounding out it's season with it. If it's worth anything, it's my kind of show.

Terrence McNally wrote the book and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Aherns wrote the lyrics and score. The story takes place at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, a new era issuing in change, change and more change. McNally's book weaves the lives of three families; an African American family at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, a WASP family living in the all-white New Rochelle suburb of New York and an immigrant Jewish father and daughter fresh off the boat from Latvia. The characters are introduced in the prologue.

Included in the WASP family are: young Edgar (Ian Brinestool), Deborah Gilmour Smyth as Mother, John Grezesiak as Mother's younger brother and somewhat of a rebel, Ralph Johnson as the crotchety Grandfather and Ted King as Father, a rich business tycoon who considers himself somewhat of an adventurer. Absolutely no negroes or immigrants live in or visit New Rochelle unless they are employed as servants.

Included in the Negro world are Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Eugene Barry Hill), a professional piano player; Sarah (Marja Harmon), his girlfriend; and Booker T. Washington (Ricky Allen), who is more of a sounding board and onlooker expounding on his peaceful philosophy as a way of bridging race relations.

Tatah (Luke Adams) is the Jewish immigrant looking to America for opportunity for his little daughter (Hallie Hoffman) and himself, and Harry Houdini (David Beaver) and Emma Goldman (Sue Boland) are the historical figures representing the immigrant community. Other historical figures include Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Admiral Perry, Evelyn Nesbit (Megan Mays), the vaudevillian actress who is remembered as the "girl on the swing" and whose former lover, architect Stanford White, was murdered by her husband, Harry Thaw, in "The Trial of the Century," a great musical number describing the event.

Ahern's and Flaherty's lyrics and music move the story along, underscoring the vicissitudes of these three very different groups of Americans as their paths cross, intersect, bisect and come together. Under artistic director Brian Wells' direction, the production moves along at a fairly crisp clip as picture montages and brief exclamations and statements of exposition defining critical historical happenings are brought to the fore. Zigzagging between these historical events, the main players are give some beautiful tunes expressing their plights. The mix of ragtime, marches and cakewalks, gives the show a wonderful flavor and had it not been for some nasty technical mic problems and the cast not stopping when the roar of the jets came overhead, this would have been a glorious night of theater.

Smyth, who is known for her association with Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado, is amazing as Mother. Her voice, while strong, is right on target. Her sensitivity and warmth are a welcome delight as she works herself out of the snobbish mores of the upper class ways and cares for and nurtures Sarah's baby after she finds it abandoned in her garden. Putting off all the objections of Grandfather and Father, she persists in housing Sarah until she can be reunited with Coalhouse. She also befriends Tateh and his daughter while most of her family looks down on the immigrant population which had its biggest influx during this historical period.

Hill is perfect as Coalhouse, a proud, talented and well-respected musician in his community. Unfortunately, he runs into the prejudices and inequality that lead to an untimely death as he tries his own form of justice when the system fails him. The irony of his plight is that it is visited on him by a group of Irish immigrants, now turned American. As Sarah, his lover and mother of his child, Harmon is equally talented. She has a splendid voice and is a credible partner to Coalhouse. Grzesiak is perfect as Brother. He fits right into the role of rebel with a cause waiting to find him. Johnson is just right as the complaining Grandfather and Megan Maes is a kick and a half as Evelyn Nesbit, "the girl on the swing."

Brinestol is just right as the Boy. He starts off the century as commentator looking through a kaleidoscope and winds down the show at the end of it looking back. Adams is less than credible as Tatah, especially after he becomes a big-time movie mogul. Hoffman is sweet and innocent as his little girl and Beaver pulled off the Houdini stunts perfectly. Since the cast has more than 19 characters, some stronger than others, some more credible than others, the finished look with choreography by Carlos Mendoza and musical direction by Palmer Fuller was satisfying.

Some of the more moving musical numbers include "On The Wings Of a Dream," a song Coalhouse sings to his infant son promising him that have can have it all in America. And Mother's "Back to Before" is another memorable tune. Again, Smyth's voice soars. Finally, Sarah's lament "Your Daddy's Son" as she sings to her new baby becomes the mantra for her being able to move ahead with her life. Many of the musical numbers are sung by the entire cast and are as moving as the pieces themselves.

"Ragtime" the musical may veer from Doctorow's book and some may feel it doesn't do it justice. Contrarily, there are enough historical references included to lend credibility to the panoramic vision as seen through the eyes of the creators of this lovely and moving musical.

Hopefully, if the sound improves and the cast pauses for the planes, a more than enjoyable evening can be had by all.


What a way to end a summer season, but with the wild, wacky and wooly "The Little Shop of Horrors" which is playing at the Moonlight. Based on the 1960 Roger Corman film, the show made it to Broadway in 1988. Howard Ashman, who wrote the book and lyrics, with music by Alan Menkin, follows the Corman film keeping all the essentials intact. Basically, it's the story of a nebbish named Seymour, an assistant florist in a rundown flower shop in the dregs of New York's Hell's Kitchen who discovers a blood-sucking plant turned man-eating plant and rides to glory on its growing notoriety. But in the end ...!

The Little Shop of HorrorsThe Little Shop of Horrors

With a splendid cast including Scott Dreier as Seymour (his signature role, having played it no less than eight times including this production), Kristen Chandler as Audrey, a clerk in the store with whom shy Seymour is smitten, John Massey as Mr. Mushnik, the owner of the shop, and David Engel as Orin Scrivello, the abusive and sadistic dentist, who has the affections of Audrey even though he abuses her, the show hums along without a glitch.

Scott is a hoot as Seymour. While he stumbles through his nurturing process with both Audrey and the plant ("Audrey 2"), he has all the right moves down pat. As Audrey, Chandler is wonderful. She reminded me of Vivian Blaine in "Guys and Dolls" with her exaggerated New York accent and the innocence of someone who know just what she's doing but doesn't want to let on. She is perfect, as is Engel's Orin. He is as versatile as he is talented. Massey's Mushnick was a little off the night I saw the show, but he managed to convince as the show progressed. And where would the show be without the growing and menacing plant? Nowhwere! Kudos to both Jimmer Bolden and Donald Lee Mckee who were Audrey 2, voice, and Audrey 2, puppeteer.

Under director/choreographer Kirby Ward, and musical direction by Terry O'Donnell with Chrissie L. Munich's lighting design, Sharell Martin's costume design, the show looked and felt as professional as any seen lately. Hats off to Moonlight.

See you at the theater.

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