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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

If Old-Time Bluegrass Is Your Cup of Tea, "Southern Crossroads" Is Highly Recommended


Paul Kerr, Elizabeth Loos, Scott Anthony, Scott Bradley and
Chris Bryant (back) as The Greene Family Singers in
Southern Crossroads. Photo – Derby Dinner Playhouse.

Southern Crossroads

Written by Warner Crocker
Directed by Bekki Jo Schneider

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents are copyright © 2013, Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

You know, there is a certain sense of comfort and welcome that comes from an evening of listening to familiar music, especially the sounds of your childhood. For me, that would be pure, downhome bluegrass. It takes me back to the years of being driven to school in my father’s car, and to the long car trips my family took every year to Florida – in both cases with that old-time country music blaring on the radio.

And it’s those pleasant memories that were evoked for me while watching Derby Dinner Playhouse’s latest offering. Southern Crossroads is another in the Playhouse’s seemingly endless parade of jukebox musicals, and one of their better examples. While a lot of the classic songs presented were new to me, standards like "House of the Rising Sun," "Tom Dooley" and "Midnight Special" really evoked that sense of nostalgia.

The loose storyline presented tells the tale of down-on-their-luck musicians, The Greene Family Singers. In the middle of the Great Depression (1933, to be specific), they have arrived by train for a performance only to discover that the theater has been closed down. Without enough money to book another train out of town, they decide to set up on the sidewalk in front of the theater and perform for the pocket change of passers-by. Add in an out-of-work drifter (J. R. Stuart) who is mesmerized by the group, and a villainous banker and his wife (Cary Wiger and Janet Essenpreis) who want to stop the show, and that’s about all the plot you get.

But it is such a nice set-up; the plot really becomes incidental as we fall in love with these characters and get immersed in the music. All of the performers play their own instruments, adding to the realism of the experience. The only theatrical flourishes are the opening and closing narrations performed by Stuart; otherwise it is a completely immersive experience that feels nothing if not genuine.

Performances are, as usual for Derby Dinner, top-caliber. Stuart’s down-on-his-luck Jake is lovable from the moment he steps onto the stage, and his enthusiasm for the music troop is infectious. Scott Anthony is also quite strong in his portrayal of hapless percussionist Loomis, who has impregnated a local girl (Jillian Prefach) and lost what little money the group had. Paul Kerr is a strong presence as Wallace, nominal leader of the group; and Wiger’s portrayal of William the evil banker doesn’t go at all the way you expect it to. Scott Bradley and Chris Bryant also get some nice moments.

Special props have to be given, though, to Elizabeth Loos as Shannon, the group’s leading lady. She is in fine voice and has the saddest of all the back-stories, and gives the role a tortured dignity that is unexpected for this kind of material.

On the technical side, Lee Buckholz’s scenic design is impressive and realistic, and yet another welcome example of the Playhouse’s recent migration away from arena staging. The fa├žade of the 1930s’-era vaudeville theater is impressive and really adds to the overall immersive experience. It is nicely complemented by Ron Breedlove’s lighting, Ron Riall’s props, David Nelson’s sound and Sharon Murray Harrah’s costumes. Well done all around.

I really don’t have any negative criticism of this entire production. If old-time bluegrass (and a couple of ragtime numbers thrown in as well) is your cup of tea, then I can’t recommend this show enough. If not, it may not be your thing. For this reviewer, though, it created nostalgia for a time other than what it portrayed, and that could not have been an easy task.

Southern Crossroads

Featuring Scott Anthony, Scott Bradley, Chris Bryant, Janet Essenpreis, Paul Kerr, Elizabeth Loos, Mark McCulloch, Jillian Prefach, Jim Schweickart, J. R. Stuart and Cary Wiger.

August 20 – September 29, 2013

Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive30
Clarksville, IN 47129
Tickets (812) 288-8281

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