by Kyle West
Last Friday, at a restaurant in downtown Dallas, the cast of Broadway's newest hit musical, MOONSHINE: THAT HEE HAW MUSICAL, celebrated their crowd-pleasing opening night amidst cocktails and cheers. Except it wasn't the celebration of their Broadway opening night they were celebrating: it was a party celebrating the press opening of Dallas Theatre Center's exciting new local production, currently being produced in hopes of soon landing on the Great White Way. Still, with the amount of talent on stage, and the brilliant writing, staging, costumes, set design, etc., this production felt a lot more "Big Apple" than "Big D."
As the title states, the show is (very loosely) based on the famous TV variety show launched in the 1970's, which I was altogether unfamiliar with before attending the musical. On stage, the show is set in fictional Kornfield Kounty, where small town sweetheart Misty Mae yearns to see what's beyond the cornfields. As she pursues her dreams, Misty Mae leaves behind her childhood love, Bucky Jr., as well as her dear Grandpa, and the rest of her tight-knit community in search of brighter lights and a bigger city. However, urban life isn't exactly what she expects. Although Misty Mae is "too strong to go home, [but] too sweet to get a tramp stamp," she soon returns to Kornfield to show off her cute, new city-beau, Gordy. Gordy quickly learns that his smooth style clashes with the Kounty's backwoods ways (where "everyone here fits in everyone here"), and Misty Mae finds herself torn between her past and present. Yes, some of the plot feels predictable, but it's a hilarious journey with plenty of twists and turns to keep even the most jaded audience member thoroughly entertained.
The show is packed with impeccable performances, but Rose Hemingway's performance as Misty Mae is star-making. Hemingway, who recently starred opposite Daniel Radcliff (and later Darren Criss, followed by Nick Jonas) in Broadway's HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, has the beautiful girl-next-door looks, a stunning voice, and some kick-ass comedic chops to boot. Her role demands the skill to make the audience laugh, cry...and then laugh until you cry - and Hemingway works every moment with utter perfection. Even when she is simply reacting to her scene partners, her subtext displays as much power as the strongest notes from her best ballads.
Sharing Hemingway's spotlight is Justin Guarini (of American Idol fame). Guarini plays Misty Mae's city-slick boyfriend Gordy, who has "teeth so white they can join a country club." Although Guarini's comedic timing is often weak compared to that of his scene partner, his rich vocals are worth the price of admission. Even the over-the-top nature of his signature song in the show, "Misty," can even be overlooked because of the skill with which it is sung.
To complete the show's love triangle, Ken Clark is endearing as Bucky Jr. Playing the man who took what he had for granted until it was gone, he shines in the moments of vulnerability, as in his act one song, "Okay."
MOONSHINE's supporting cast deserves kudos, too: P.J. Benjamin (who played The Wizard in WICKED for several years) adds sweet, sincere heart to Grandpa. Ryah Nixon (a Dolly Parton/Megan Hilty doppelganger) has just what it takes to pull off a strong, fun, bosom buddy as Misty Mae's best friend, Lulu. And, as Moutaineers #1 and #2 (the untitled narrators of the show), Aaron Ramey and Rob Morrison keep the audience rolling in the aisles with their musical wit. But it's Kevin Cahoon (Jr. Jr.) who steals many of the hilarious scenes with his deadpan humor and perfect timing. Cahoon's never-ending one-liners are perfectly placed to uproarious effect, at times stopping the show. His act two song, "By The End Of This Song," which he performs with Ms. Nixon, is one of the evening's many highlights.
Frankly, it's impressive that the creative team has built such a seamless show with only a handful of preview performances under their belt. Director Gary Griffin is a musical comedy genius who keeps the show rolling at full speed. Choreographer Dennis Jones takes the somewhat small ensemble and makes exciting, full-scale (and comical) Broadway production numbers. It's likely that a few moments in the show may need updating (for example, adding some independence to Misty Mae's character, perhaps?), but Robert Horn (book), Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally (music and lyrics) have conceived one of the warmest and funniest productions in recent years. The show is so jam-packed with humor that you may miss one or two jokes while you're guffawing over the pun that came before.
MOONSHINE: THAT HEE HAW MUSICAL might sound like a redneck musical review, but the show is pure glee from start to finish. Be sure to grab a ticket soon, so you can finally be in the know of an up and coming hit before your friends in New York! MOONSHINE runs at the Wyly Theatre through October 11th. Visit www.DallasTheatreCenter.orgfor more information.
All photos courtesy of Dallas Theatre Center