Country music has been described as three chords and the truth. The world premiere of Anthony Whitaker’s “My Life is a Country Song” presented by New American Folk Theatre has taken that adage to heart and crafted a well told musical tale of love, friendship, and personal triumph.
Donna (Kelly Combs), a receptionist at the Lincoln Ford dealership, has divorced her abusive husband, Gary (Kirk Jackson), and rented an old mill house from Shirley (Judy Lee Steele) who is a photographer for the local paper.
After explaining that she has never before had keys of her own which weren’t also shared with her parents or husband, Donna sings the poignant ballad “My Front Door.”
Soon thereafter ex-husband Gary tries to suggest that he has changed, worming his way back with “A New Coat of Paint.”
This production is a kind of theatrical concert with a small living room set that stands in for Donna’s house. Along the front of the performance area are three microphones on stands with the onstage band tucked back in the corner. Each of the actors doubles on guitar, mandolin, autoharp, cajón (drum box), and/or tambourine.
Set in Greenville, SC,the story has a considerable southern twang but with an authentic sound and message that can easily carry across the continent.
The mill house on Sixth Street that Donna rents is situated across from her former classmate Jackie (Lena Dudley) and husband Freddy (Joey Harbert). Harbert is the musical director doubling on keyboard with the aid of Noah Nichols on Bass and Isabella Snow on guitar.
The new divorcee receives moral support from her sister Alma (Charlie Irving) who stops by periodically to offer uninvited Christian guidance.
The cast of actor/musicians is wonderful but this is the playwright’s success. Whitaker who wrote the book, music and lyrics is evidently a very good listener because this is a story about the experiences of women which he has composed with great compassion and apparent understanding.
Virtually every song in this production is a possible stand-alone hit in the hands of the right popular country singer, though I see nothing in the composer’s bio that indicates he has spent any time in Nashville.
Donna and Jackie sleepily sing “Gene Kelly at 4am,” an insomnia induced duet lamenting one’s own self-doubt and personal insecurities.
“Cheap Trinkets,” inspired by a box of mementos left behind, is an homage to landlord Shirley’s mother and generally about the collection of small things which remain as the physical manifestations of a life.
Alma reveals her own demons in “Donna’s Little Sister.” Donna, Alma, and Jackie perform the amusing trio “Good Baptist Girls” during a girls’ night out then come back later with “Unfinished Business.”
Donna defies Gary’s further advances with “Another Damn Dozen Roses” that seriously has a chance of becoming a breakout single from this production.
The cast joins in together at the beginning and the end with the welcoming “Come In this House” a phrase attributed to Inell Grice Whitaker, the playwright’s grandmother.
Significant credit goes to director Sarah Gise for shepherding the cast around what has the potential to be an awkward space upstairs of Chief O’Neill’s, basically a banquet room that is used periodically for musical performances.
Credit also goes to Whitaker for the believable dialog and to Gise for the impeccable timing and natural rhythm of the entire production.
I hope this premiere is only the beginning for “My Life as a Country Song” which deserves a bigger space and a wider audience to spread its truth.
DETAILS: “My Life as a Country Song,” is on the second floor at Chief O’Neill’s, 3471 N. Elston Ave., Chicago. through Nov. 21, 2019. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information visit newamericanfolktheatre.
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