Farmers Alley Theatre couldn’t possibly have known when they selected their season that December 2017 would offer the perfect cultural moment for a light-hearted jukebox musical in which three iconic female archetypes beaten down by the misbehaving men in their lives risk everything to strike out on their own — only to find beautiful harmonies and support in each other.
Amid this month’s myriad Christmas-themed shows, we’re ripe for this sort of joyful, festive offering. It’s not for nothing that the run of Honky Tonk Angels at Farmers Alley directed by Sandra Bremer is almost completely sold-out, despite the theater extending shows an extra weekend. In addition to its sympathetic themes, the downtown Kalamazoo black box theater is transformed with the help of a fantastic band, beautiful arrangements and solid performances, in addition to fun technical choices, into practically a bonafide honky tonk.
As is the case with most jukebox musicals, the plot is awfully thin, and here act one drags with the description of each of the three women’s stories of how they ended up meeting over bologna sandwiches on a Greyhound Bus to Nash Vegas, but the music itself makes up for the weaknesses in the script; and act two, set entirely in Honky Tonk Heaven, a fictitious Nashville bar, provides some downright riotous comedy in addition to powerful renditions of beloved country classics (made famous by Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Tanya Tucker and Dolly Parton), many of which have to do with love, angels and freedom.
Angela (Gina-Maria Chimner) is the red-headed narrator, the mother of six, wife of Lone Star beer truck driver Bubba, and double-wide queen from Waxahachie, Texas; Sue Ellen (Misty Cotton) is the Dolly Parton-esque long-suffering, thrive-divorced, perpetually sexually-harassed career woman from Pasadena, the toilet bowl of Texas; and Darlene (Cara Palombo) is the West-Virginia-born good, young Christian sweet-voiced, pig-tailed girl en route from the Mississippi Delta. All of whom clearly subscribe to what every striving Texas gal knows: the bigger the hair, the closer to God (thanks to Steve Hodges’ fun wig design).
Palombo’s voice is exquisite and her acting charming; Cotton is utterly convincing and delightful as the roller-skating, baton-twirling Hooter girl; and Chimner’s physical comedy at times practically rivals that of Lucille Ball. Together, their harmonies are gorgeous, especially in the truly lovely arrangements of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and “Paradise Road,” among many others of the nearly 30 songs in this two-hour cabaret-style show.
The true star is the killer orchestra led flawlessly upstage by music director and pianist Marie McColley Kerstetter. They look and sound like a legit honky tonk band, complete with a fiddle and steel guitar, and the musicians perform as actors in their own right, bantering and improvising with the women in character.
They delightfully set the stage at least as much as W. Douglas Blickle’s wood-paneled set and Jason Frink’s lights, and the overall effect provides the feel of the kind of country bar in which too many cheap drinks are more than likely to lead to a brawl.
But at Farmers Alley, rest assured this honky tonk ticket promises dessert and coffee to go with the ballads and well-earned laughs. The darkness and rough edges that belie real country have little place in this sweet little down-home musical.
Honky Tonk Angels
Farmers Alley Theatre
221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo