Three talented women and ace wig wrangler Greg Howell are the saving graces of Manoa Valley Theatre’s season-opening production of “The Honky Tonk Angels.” The women have great voices. Howell does an outstanding job with their hair. If only playwright Ted Swindley had provided them with better material to work with.
MVT has enjoyed consistent success over the years with jukebox musicals — shows that consist of a lot of popular songs strung along a minimal plot — and “Angels” certainly won’t be the last. Unfortunately, like several of its predecessors, it all too often holds up for ridicule the hits whose enduring popularity it is capitalizing on.
The searing emotion of “I Will Always Love You,” a hit first for Dolly Parton and then Whitney Houston, is extinguished with a trite throwaway joke. The defiant fatalism of “Nightlife” is sacrificed in favor of broad physical comedy. And no matter how abhorrent Hillary Rodham Clinton and many other women today find the sentiments expressed in “Stand By Your Man,” nothing in Tammy Wynette’s 1968 recording suggested any part of the song was sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek.
Other classics are vandalized with gratuitous changes to their lyrics — “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Harper Valley PTA” and “Ode To Billie Joe,” to name three. It’s mama, not papa, who dies in this version of the Bobbie Gentry hit, and we’re told that Billie threw a guitar off the bridge. None of this is necessary.
There are some good ideas that could have been developed without trashing the music. As it is, the overall impression is that Swindley either feels superior to country music on a personal basis or he believes mainstream audiences will accept country music only if it is presented as low-brow cornpone comedy.
Either way, the women in this story are written a bit less ham-handedly than he wrote Louise Seger in his “based on a true story” opus, “Always Š Patsy Cline.” In that show, MVT’s jukebox musical season-opener two years ago, Seger was an annoying stereotypical country yahoo. These women have a bit more humanity despite the minimal plot.
Angela (Anita Hall) leaves her good-timing husband and their six children to go to Nashville and become a star. Sue Ellen (Alison Aldcroft), childless and twice-divorced, leaves her job and unappealing boss to go to Nashville and become a star. Darleen (Amber Leilani Williams), young and unselfconsciously backwoods, leaves her widower father to go to Nashville and become a star.
They meet on the bus, share their stories and decide to work together as the Honky Tonk Angels. Act I establishes the premise and gets them to Nashville. As Act II opens, it’s six weeks later and they’re wrapping up a triumphant engagement in a Nashville nightclub.
Hall is well-known around town as a powerful pop singer but Aldcroft and Williams handle their share of the vocal load admirably as well. All three do best when the script and MVT guest director Grace Bell let them dial down the stage-country accents and get into the emotion of the lyrics rather exploiting them for cheap laughs. “Amazing Grace,” “Delta Dawn,” “Calling All Angels” and “Almost Persuaded” show what they can do when they’re allowed to sing unimpeded.
“Cornell Crawford,” a minor country hit in the early ’90s, gives Aldcroft an opportunity to entertain solo on rollerskates. “Fancy” showcases Williams’ talents as an actress and song stylist. Several other songs also would be highlights were it not for the ill-advised cornball bits that mar them.
As for Howell, he scores success after success with wigs that range from more-or-less realistic to pure classic country to absolutely ridiculous.
Musical director Lina Doo’s band is another asset. Give Doo credit for recruiting fiddler Lisa Gomes to add a bit of country edge to a score that doesn’t recreate the original hits.
“The Honky Tonk Angels”
Where: Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 E. Manoa Road
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 26
Cost: $35 ($30 military and seniors, $25 ages 25 and younger)
Info: 988-6131 or www.manoavalleytheatre.com