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MY ACHIN’ HEART: Musical uses classic country songs to tell stories of heartbreak and courage

If you want to know the heart and soul of America, listen to its songs. And few genres of song tell our stories more vividly than country music, that unique style born of folk and gospel and blues and rooted in the soil of Middle America. Love, work, family, heartache, infidelity, addiction—like it or not, this is the stuff of our lives. So when Ted Swindley—the creator of Always … Patsy Cline—decided to write a “jukebox” musical using only country songs, he was able to let the lyrics of the songs provide much of the internal narrative. Honky Tonk Angels, which opens July 8th at the American Heartland Theatre, follows three very different southern women as they travel to Nashville to make their mark as country singers.

Along the way we get to know them and their tribulations, as they sing country standards like “Stand By Your Man,” “9 to 5,” “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Harper Valley PTA” and “I Will Always Love You.” And during the course of the show, with its more than 30 peerless “girl songs,” we are reminded of how rich this body of music can be. “Part of it is realizing just how extraordinary these songs are,” says Paul Hough, AHT director of production, who will direct Angels along with Jerry Jay Cranford, “particularly in terms of their lyrical statements, and also the material they’re covering. It’s very adventuresome stuff.” Part of Paul’s journey with Angels was “realizing how daring these women were who were writing these songs,” he says. Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” for instance, is about sexual liberation: “There’s gonna be some changes made right here on nursery hill,” its protagonist sings, “You’ve set this chicken one last time, ’cause now I’ve got the Pill.”

At the center of Angels is the friendship of Angela (Teri Adams), Darlene (Colleen Grate) and Sue Ellen (Jessalyn Kincaid) that forms when they meet on the bus to Nashville. Red-headed, big-wigged Angela is a lead of sorts: She’s the oldest and has a maternal manner. “She’s just no-nonsense and tells it like it is,” says veteran local actor Teri of her character. “She’s definitely the one I would pick out to play. She is outspoken, kind of a good ole girl. She’s got six kids and lives in a double-wide trailer with her husband named Bubba.” Sue Ellen is the blonde who has lived in Los Angeles and sees herself as worldly—she is vaguely fashioned after Dolly Parton—but is really just a country girl herself. “She has new hair every time she comes onstage,” Paul says, “and that’s exactly what Dolly did: Try to find her in the same wig more than once!” Then there’s Darlene, the simple, guitar-picking girl from Apple Holler, West Virginia, a young brunette modeled somewhat after Loretta Lynn. “They all have a bit of a transformation,” says Colleen, “but I think hers is probably the greatest. She’s very plain at first: I’m not wearing makeup at all for the first act, and I’ll be kind of frumpily dressed. Then in Act 2, during the song ‘Fancy,’ I’m going to have a huge transformation.” Throughout the show, she says, “my hair keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

One of the tricks of making this show work is avoiding pure parody, Teri says. “You have to walk a fine line to make it real but still not a caricature. I think that’s the trick: You don’t want to poke fun of these people as you portray them. Even sometimes when I’m playing characters that are bigger than life I like to try, as much as I can, to base them in some sort of reality, to connect with them on a human level.”

One thing is for sure: Men don’t get off easy in Honky Tonk Angels: They are the scoundrels, the cheaters, the couch potatoes, the drunks. “Men come in for a hard time in the show, they really do, in each one of these songs,” Paul says, adding with a laugh: “As a male, I hate to accept that these women’s views of men are accurate—but I can’t say I disagree with them, either.” The general tenor is that men are useless, and a woman’s act of freeing herself from them is the key to self-realization. The show takes on other subjects as well, including pride in working-class values (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”), dying relationships (“These Boots Are Made for Walking”) and hypocrisy (“Harper Valley PTA”). “Who doesn’t like to see hypocrites get their comeuppance?” Paul says of the latter song’s whimsical tone.

Some of the songs of Angels—which draws primarily from country classics of the 1960s and ’70s—were so successful as crossover hits that many listeners aren’t aware of their origins in country. “ ‘I Will Always Love You’? I had no idea that started out as a country song,” Colleen says. “These songs are so great that they work in other genres as well. That really is a well-written song, so I understand why people would want to record it in a different way.” Other songs in Honky Tonk Angels have taken on new energy with recent covers: Jessica Simpson’s “These Boots” brought that stalwart Nancy Sinatra hit to the attention of a whole new generation. Does country music require a different type of vocalism than other genres? “I think it’s a little spicier, a little twangier,” Teri says, and Colleen agrees: “It’s a very different tonality and placement than how I would naturally sing. I think I’m naturally a very ‘pop-y,’ musical-theater singer, and country is placed a little further back in the throat.” Colleen, who was raised in south Kansas City and appreciates country but says she never thought of herself as a fan, also says she feels grateful to have the chance to get to know these classic songs, some of them for the first time. “My parents knew most of these songs, but it’s just not stuff that was playing in the house when I grew up.”

Honky Tonk Angels runs from July 8th through August 21st at the American Heartland Theatre in Crown Center. Call 816-842-9999, visit the box office on the 3rd floor of Crown Center, or go to www.ahtkc.com.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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