THE BASICS: FROM HONKY TONK TO PROTEST: A WOMAN’S VIEW OF COUNTRY MUSIC runs through October 3, 2021 at the D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre 320 Porter Avenue (on the D’Youville College campus). Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $45 (call 716-829-7668 or visit kavinokytheatre.com). Proof of vaccination or negative test within 48 hours required. Masks must be worn regardless of vaccination status. Snack bar and a full cocktail menu including spirits, wine & beer. No programs handed out. Click here for playbill. Runtime: a little over 2 hours with one intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: This is an original musical revue written by Kavinoky Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell about the true stories and struggles of female country artists and how the women in country music have been more progressive than she (or most people who say “I don’t like Country Music”) thought or still think.
Nine musician/singers take turns covering 25 songs, including such pokes-in-the-eye as “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” “The Pill,” “Harper Valley PTA,” and in the second act a number of topical or protest songs about the invasion of Iraq, racism, police violence, intolerance, and other ills which continue to bedevil us as a nation. The arc of the musical truly is, as the title says, “from honky tonk to protest.”
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Narrated by O’Donnell who also sings several of the selections, the show begins as she explains on stage that growing up in Boonville, NY near the Adirondack Mountains she wanted nothing to do with country music as she saw it. But driving back home to be with her father in his final months she discovered a vein of sass and protest on the part of women country artists that aligned with her core values. She was hooked.
In her “Note From The Playwright” O’Donnell writes: “The show you are seeing is the result of my discoveries I found going home again, rediscovering the music of my childhood and facing the biases I have had throughout my life-not just about country music, but about the culture surrounding that music and my childhood hometown.”
So if you, dear reader of this review, have also had a bias and refused to listen to Country Music, it turns out that for decades women of Country Music have been sick and tired of not being listened to as a gender. Not heard. Not necessarily by you who turned off that radio dial, but by society at large. And every once in a while, women in Country Music said “enough is enough.” For example, in direct response to a popular song by Hank Thompson complaining about women’s behavior in his song “The Wild Side of Life,” Kitty Wells shot back in 1952 with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”
“It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women / It’s not true that only you men feel the same / From the start most every heart that’s ever broken / Was because there always was a man to blame.” Maybe you weren’t listening, but millions of women were. And that’s just the opening song of the show.
In addition to all the other problems plaguing us today, our political divisiveness is killing us, literally. So the question is, how do we get back together? The answers vary, but always come back to fixing our own individual biases first, not casting people with different points of view as “the other,” and one way to do that is to see others (and “other” genres of music) as more complex.
A recent NPR piece offered that one reason families are being torn apart is because “We’re flattening people out in terms of our view of them and we’re not really seeing the full complexity of people on the other side.” This idea has been explored by the American Psychological Association here as well as The Scientific American here and it’s being explored right now on stage at the Kavinoky. There is a complexity to Country Music that’s worth learning about.
So it turns out that this two-act review was much, much more than I anticipated. Not only in terms of overall message, but in the delivery. Simply put, the band was kick-ass (“heavy-hitters” to use O’Donnell’s language) and the arrangements were very true to the originals. I was impressed with the variety of instruments on stage and the way in which they were deployed.
The rhythm section was spot on, with Charlie Gannon on Bass and Electric Guitar, plus Elton Hough on Drums and John Martz on Lap Steel Guitar, Banjo, and Dobro plus Music Director Dee Adams who played Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, Mandolin, Bass, and, if that weren’t enough, was also a Vocalist. Helen Butler-Ceppaglia was on a five-string electric Violin as well as Accordion; Kathryn Koch was a Vocalist who also played Acoustic Guitar and Harmonica; and Renee Landrigan sang, and played Keyboards and Melodica. All the above are members of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 92. Joining them on stage were Annette Daniels Taylor, Vocalist, and Loraine O’Donnell as Vocalist/Narrator.
I was particularly impressed by the five singers – Adams, Koch, Landrigan, Taylor, and O’Donnell. Fine voices as soloists, good homages to the original artists, and excellent close harmony in both choral as well as “back up singers.” And with each song came a different singer or singers and a different musical accompaniment. As we say about the weather in Buffalo, if what’s happening at the moment isn’t your cup of tea, just wait five minutes. Or variety is the spice of life. Or something like that. Anyway, you get a lot for your $45 ticket.
The show also had a “secret weapon” and that was Director and Choreographer Lynne Kurdziel Formato who knows how to do musicals. Ever since Disney put her on their approved director list a few years ago, she’s been off working in Europe and South America. Good for them, bad for us. And then came the pandemic. Thud. Bad for them, good for us. So while things are picking up again for Formato’s international career, the Kavinoky was able to grab this hometown hero for one additional gig.
In addition to the director, another key person in every musical is Musical Director, keeping the band tight, and, as mentioned above, that was Dee Adams who also took a few turns as vocalist and many as backup singer. During the entire show, there were projections along the back wall using the Kav’s new system. Sometimes they were scenes from Boonville, NY and sometimes shots of actual stars and a lot of the time a trio of interpretive dancers: Aurora Hastings, Christina Tribo, Evan Mathew Stuart. Video Design was by Brian Milbrand and Sound Design by Geoffrey Tocin.
Lighting Design was by Brian Cavanagh; Costumes were by Andrea Letcher, most of the time variations of 1950s country singer fringed outfits, but every once in a while a knockout fashion statement.
I’m not thrilled that most theaters no longer hand out printed programs so let me encourage you to download this playbill to read the notes and check out the song list.
Not only was the show a hit, but the new seats and improved sightlines were appreciated and the sound was excellent. As they might have said on “Hee-Haw” about the Kavinoky space, “the old gal was all gussied up.”
If you’re interested in Country Music, know that WNED-PBS in Buffalo is rolling out a repeat of Ken Burns’ multi-episode series KEN BURNS: COUNTRY MUSIC at 12:00 a.m. on Mondays. So set your DVRs! Or (since/if) you’re a member of WNY Public Broadcasting (radio or television) you have access to “Passport” for anytime viewing of the large Ken Burns catalog.
Images Courtesy D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre
WHAT’S NEXT AT THE KAV
THE WOMAN IN BLACK, Oct. 29-Nov. 21: In one of London’s longest-running West End plays, a woman dressed in black haunts a city with tragic results.
THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT, Jan. 7-30: A famed essayist is put to the test in this topical comedy when a fact-checker finds most of a groundbreaking story is fabricated.
PRIDE & PREJUDICE, March 4 to 27: Compressing the iconic novel by Jane Austen into a two-act play, Kate Hamill breathes new life into the classic will they or won’t they love story.
PEOPLE, PLACES, & THINGS, April 29 to May 22: This dramatic play gives audiences a look at addiction and recovery from the inside, following Emma’s 12-step journey.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!