For more than a decade now, I have been blessed with literally hundreds of opportunities to serve as columnist and critic for performing arts events of all kinds throughout the Houston area, particularly here in Montgomery County. From opera to ballet, from symphony to theatre, from local productions to national tours, mine has been a job that many would love to have. But in all that time I never saw anything that had a complete component of local talent from conception to full production. Such is the case with “Armchair, Texas,” an original musical comedy with book and lyrics by Woodlands resident, Jeanne Edmonds, and her fellow Texan, Jo Sweeney. The show features original music by Rusty Rhoad, a local chemical engineer who doubles as choir director at Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church. Add to that the legendary skill of local producer Keith Brumfield, and the well-established prowess of Music Director, Rae Moses, (who doubles superbly as narrator in this radio-show format), and you have a formula for irresistible fun.
The World Premiere of “Armchair, Texas,” took place last Friday night at the intimate “small theatre” room of McCullough High School. The sizeable crowd that assembled included theatergoers of all ages, and had many enthusiastic teenagers who were bubbling with excitement prior to curtain. Clearly, something special was anticipated. Now before I go further, I have a disclaimer of my own to confess. Co-author, Jeanne Edmonds, is a friend and fellow member of a mixed doubles tennis group that we both enjoy every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Since Ms. Edmond’s collaborator, Sweeney, was confronting health concerns, it was up to Edmonds to spearhead the efforts for Armchair’s future. Back in 2007, Jeanne asked me if I had any thoughts on who she might approach for possible production of the play. I immediately thought of Class Act Productions founder, Keith Brumfield, and put her in contact with him. The rest, as they say, is history!
But the back-story on ARMCHAIR is interesting as well. It began in a playful way years ago when Edmonds and Sweeney corresponded with each other, with each extending the silly tale they concocted of a little Texas town and its goofy inhabitants. Those collected exchanges, with their back and forth cliff-hanger extensions of the plot, grew into “Armchair, Texas,” an award-winning novel with the Texas Writers’ Conference. Sweeney’s theatrical pals in New York City encouraged converting it to a play, with the resulting script entered in a Crighton Theatre playwriting contest here in Montgomery County, where one scene was selected for a reading at the theater. Edmond’s daughter continued to urge her mother to press toward production, and when Edmonds brought composer, Rusty Rhoad on board to write the music and additional lyrics, it completed the alliance that led to this Woodlands Repertory Theatre production, amusingly directed by Elizabeth “Betsy” Lipe.
As has already been suggested, the plot is a silly one, and Edmonds sums it up well:
“The story of the Skagg family and their oldest daughter, Angie [beautifully sung and played by Maredith Zaritski], who leaves to seek her fortune and edible grits up North. As her saga unfolds, she’s left a humongous inheritance by bordello madam, Miss Lavinia, [Sherry Hunyadi as emergency understudy, in one of four sharp roles, including that of Angie’s mother, an amusing telephone operator, and a hilarious prison inmate]. Angie outwits a flabbergasted doctor [Richard Denne], a crooked mayor, [E.J. Hunyadi in one of his four roles here], a shyster lawyer [Santiago Delgado], and oodles of other folks. She becomes a world famous fashion symbol, a jailbird, and falls in love with the voice of country music’s #1 singer. After finding her one true love, Archie Loop [Callen Myers], she flies back to Armchair.”
Well, you get the idea! There are many fine supporting players too numerous to mention here, and the show’s twelve songs vary in their impact, but one of my favorites was the duet of Angie and her mom for “I Almost Love Him.” (Reprised later with Angie and Archie). In my opinion the song was a knockout and should be sent off to Dolly Parton immediately for consideration! And there are so many delicious bits of nonsense, as when Angie brags about being ready to graduate from high school because she has “ all D-pluses” for grades. She dreams of going to far-off Paris, Texas “…to meet all those French people.” At the outset of her travels, limited funds only allow her to get as far as Fertilizer, Texas, “Home of the World’s Choicest Manure.” On the way she meets sailor, Brillo Backstrap (Richard Denne), and they duet sweetly over the Texas landscape in another nice number, “All That Space.” But longing for her high school sweetheart, Angie closes Act One with the plaintive longing of “Where Are You, Archie?”
When an unexpected inheritance comes her way, Angie heads off to New York City where her flour sack outfits, table cloth skirts and truck tire thongs attract the attention of gay fashionista, Buzz Bee Baxter (a wildly mincing Josiah Miller who re-ignites the show with his uproarious performance). Buzz and his assistant, Penelope (Giny Mendez), set out to market an expensive, Angie-style clothing line called, “Skagg Rags.” When the fashion show debuts, we have a chance to hear the fine ensemble cast sing the rousing, “Opening Night.” As the money rolls in, Angie sends her family back home some household appliances, forgetting that they have no electricity.
Meanwhile, Angie’s friend, Seaman Brillo, has been imprisoned for visiting her for “28 days on a 24 hour pass.” As Brillo escapes “in drag,” the baffled Shore Patrolman (talented and comical Kelly Flowers, who also plays Angie’s pa and the District Attorney) calls out to him, “Honey, come back! Even though you need to shave your legs I still love you!”
With Edmonds’ script re-writes already underway, the play is a work-in-progress, and not without its flaws. Some songs did not quite catch fire and some sketches were too long, suggesting that the lengthy three acts need to be trimmed to two. But there was fun for all, and the full cast finale of the robust, “Back Home in Armchair,” made me wish there was more of this fine ensemble singing in the show.