By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III
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For those seeking relief from the seemingly endless woes that newscasters assault us with on a daily basis, the cheerful answer may have arrived via the latest offering from the Theatre Under the Stars Underground series with last Friday’s World Premiere of the merry new musical, The Sweet Potato Queens, directed by Bruce Lumpkin & Marley Wisnoski. The show celebrates the genesis of a now world-wide organization claiming more than 6000 SPQ chapters in over 20 countries. The 1982 brainchild of Jill Conner Browne in Jackson, Mississippi, the idea involved a group of fun-loving women on a path to self-empowerment, who decided, with Ms. Browne’s direction, to feature themselves as stars in the Zippity Doo Dah Parade, Jackson Mississippi’s St. Patrick’s Day Celebration. The annual event raises needed funds for Jackson’s Batson Children’s Hospital. That SPQ tradition continues to the present day, and this coming weekend will again be Sweet Potato Queens Weekend in Jackson, while Houston has a celebration of its own with this delightful musical romp featuring the often poignant lyrics by Sharon Vaughn, the warm, sweet musical score of Melissa Manchester, and a pleasant book by Rupert Holmes. Speaking of books, Ms. Browne has authored a popular assortment of SPQ books that are eagerly received by her many fans.
But let us return to the subject of this very cute new musical. (Music Director/Conductor, Thom Culcasi). It is not a profound theatrical event, nor is it intended to be. But it is a lively and entertaining romp that many (especially you gals) will thoroughly enjoy, and it sports a cast of very fine vocalists. If any of you ladies ever danced in the aisles at a production of Mama Mia, or let loose in a Mardi Gras parade, this show is for you! Guys who like sexy ladies and bawdy humor will not be disappointed either.
The two-tiered plot has the contemporary Queen Jill (Susan Koozin) as a frequent narrator, but takes us in flashback to the much younger Jackson Jill (Kathryn Porterfield) when she lived in a trailer park years earlier with her nagging Mom (Theresa Nelson), kindly Dad (Kevin Cooney), her infant child, and her good-for-nothing redneck husband, Tyler (Adam Gibbs). Ryan McGettigan’s rotating set gives us smooth scene changes and clever views of both the interior and exterior of the trailer.
Jill’s young girlfriends are amusingly all named Tammy. Kerissa Arrington has a powerful gospel-sound voice portraying Too Much Tammy. Christina Stroup sings beautifully as well and gives a thoughtful performance as the reluctantly loose woman, Floozie Tammy. Julia Krohn brings tenderness to the role of Flower Tammy, the optimistic victim of her husband’s physical abuse. Meanwhile, Jill is sweetly comforted by her father as she tries to endure her mother’s whining and her husband’s philandering.
What binds all these characters together is the rowdy fun of the supportive sisterhood bond between these future Sweet Potato Queens, and the gay pal, George, (Dylan Godwin) that they take under their wing. Campy and outlandish costumes (designer, Colleen Grady), over-the-top wigs (designer, Jeff Knaggs), along with splashy and show-stopping numbers, all add to the fun. But even more important is the really rich musical score which will please fans of classic country music with tender original songs and ballads that in the opinion of this critic have the potential to cross-over in the country music scene, or perhaps land the show appreciative audiences in Nashville, Las Vegas or beyond. My only regret is that one of those more memorably melodic tunes was not chosen to close the show with the warmth it deserves.
SWEET POTATO QUEENS continues at Houston’s Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St., with final performances at 7:30 pm Thursday, 8 pm Friday, 3 pm & 8:30 pm on Saturday, and 3pm on Sunday. For tickets and information visit the website at www.TUTSUNDERGROUND.com