My Life is a Country Song has too many flat narrative notes | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

My Life is a Country Song has too many flat narrative notes 

New American Folk Theatre's world premiere needs stronger characters and a more compelling story to match the music.

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click to enlarge My Life Is a Country Song

My Life Is a Country Song

Joseph Ramski

The story Anthony Whitaker tells in his 90-minute country-and-western musical is the stuff of George Jones and Tammy Wynette songs: Donna (ably played by Kelly Combs), a southern gal in her late 20s/early 30s, tries to restart her life after she d-i-v-o-r-c-e-s her high school sweetheart after years of an abusive marriage. Or it could be, if Whitaker—who wrote the book, the songs, and the lyrics—was a stronger storyteller.

The elements are there for a good yarn: a relatable problem, potentially interesting country-song characters (shrill, Bible-thumping little sis, kindly neighbor, hard-drinking ex), a southern setting (Greenville, South Carolina, circa 1980). But Whitaker's characters fall flat, his story barely moves, and when it does, it's in awkward forward lurches.

Part of the problem is that Whitaker (and director Sarah Gise) tell Donna's story in a slice-of-life Andy Griffith Show style, which makes her life seem too bland and run-of-the-mill to really care about. Another problem is that Whitaker breaks the reality of his hypernaturalistic style every time the characters step up to one of the three microphones in front of the stage to sing their hearts out as if they were at the Grand Ole Opry.

To be sure, Whitaker's lively, likable songs do most of the heavy lifting in this show; things truly brighten up every time a character steps up to the mikes. (The production includes a great onstage band featuring Noah Nichols on bass and Isabella Snow on guitar.) Whitaker might do better to fulfill the promise of his show's title: throw away the book, and tell the story entirely in song.  v

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