Grapevine — “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry.” If you just started singing that song to yourself, you’re likely “of a certain age,” and probably have no idea where you first heard it. The melody, however, comes straight to mind when you're reminded of those lyrics.
I’m of that certain age, and upon learning that Dula, presented in a world premiere by OhLook Performing Arts Center, I knew the song right off the bat, but then realized I had no idea who or what it referred to.
Please, take this advice: If you don’t already know the story of Tom Dula (or “Dooley,” as it was colloquially pronounced—the “ah” sound of the “a” becomes an “ee,” as in Grand Ole Opry—do yourself a favor and and don’t Google it before going to the show. Writer-lyricist Paul Elliott and composer-lyricist Jeanie Cunningham take a revisionist view in telling the true story of Civil War veteran Dula and his fraught return home to poverty-stricken, Union-occupied North Carolina. The show was a winner of Texas Nonprofit Theatre's 2014 TNT Pops! contest. You’ll enjoy it more if you see it fresh, instead of trying to match Elliott and Cunningham’s story against the true-life version.
Without giving too much away, the folk ballad “Tom Dooley” (it was No. 1, Grammy Award-winning hit as recorded by the Kingston Brothers in 1958) fits into an extremely specific, somewhat alarming subgenre: “sweetheart murder ballad.” Yes, there’s a murder, and yes, Tom Dula’s the accused, but whether or not he did it was the subject of much speculation in 1868, and still is. It may—or may not—be that Dula’s primary crimes were merely being too popular with the ladies, and given to boyish indulgences even after returning from the war, proclaimed a hero.
As one townswoman tells Tom, simply coming home alive constitutes heroism in the eyes of his neighbors. We get a glimpse of Tom’s character in his first scene, a war episode in which he kills a dying horse to spare it pain. His fierce insistence on honor at any cost may prove his downfall. And for students of American history, the dropping of names such as Gettysburg into daily conversation will bring chills of recognition and horror. The script also deftly shreds some preconceived notions about the South: The show’s one black character staunchly defends his Southern neighbors, and they him; he’s even seen—gasp!—dancing with a white woman in one scene.
Good for OhLook for taking on such an ambitious project, especially tough with a mostly young and inexperienced cast; Ohlook is also a theater school, and many of its students appear in the show. The acting, singing and design range from all right to exceptional, and OK, you’ll hear a few sour notes. But the cast performs the nearly entirely sung-through show with such heady, youthful intensity that it’s impossible to resist.
The music sounds at times like—as you might expect—folk songs, at other times careening into Stephen Sondheim-esque dissonance, with a hearty helping of Les Misérables-style grandeur and drama in several rousing ensemble numbers. One expects a barricade and a giant flag to appear at any moment. It'd be stronger if Elliott and Cunningham picked a style and stuck with it. The song “Tom Dooley” never makes an appearance, a deliberate choice that nonetheless seems odd.
Cast standouts include Jordan Justice, bristling with hope and energy as Tom; Mattie Davis, whose lovely voice brings pathos to Anne Melton, one of Tom’s conquests; Taylor Wallis as Pauline (Pearlene), the local “loose girl”; a powerful James Worley as Tom’s brother Willy; and Matt Choat as the conflicted Union colonel, Vance. Wallis is an excellent actor-singer with spot-on comic timing, an element desperately needed in such a somber undertaking.
Director Jill Blalock Lord keeps the pacing brisk and moves her large cast with grace around the small stage; the intimate space seats only 65 people. Dula may not be quite Broadway-ready just yet, but it has the chops to encourage further development. By my test of every new musical—"Would I buy the cast album?"—it passes with flying colors. I’d happily pay just to have the moving, anthemic opener/closer, “There Was a Man,” and Willy’s big Act One finale, “Finding My Way Back Home,” sung by this cast.
Assuming Elliott and Cunningham continue sharpening and shaping Dula, they might just have the makings of a new American classic. It’s a compelling story whose fragments might otherwise be completely lost to time.