Dallas — The white underclass has long been a handy palette for satirical treatment, from Mark Twain to Al Capp to The Beverly Hillbillies to Greater Tuna. Dallas’ Pocket Sandwich Theatre—one of the last remaining outposts of the once-mighty dinner theater circuit—stirs that great American tradition together with the whodunit genre and the musical comedy (in this case, with a country-rock score) for the not-at-all-serious but intriguingly topical, and cleverly titled, Death the Musical II: Death Takes a Harmony.
It’s a follow up to Eckert’s Death! The Musical, which won a Dallas-Fort Worth Critics Forum Citation for Outstanding New Musical in 2009.
Fictional Egypt, Okla., the sort of place where status means a double-wide, and membership in the local gun-toting militia is a civic duty, provides the setting for the tale. The action takes place in the local trailer park and at the establishment that serves as a daycare in the early part of the day, a restaurant later on, and a titty-bar late at night. Although the name Egypt allegedly derives from the defunct principal employer in the community, Empire Gypsum Company, the viewer is clearly invited to supply the prefix “BF” ahead of the town’s name.
And, though the program book lists 1982 as the time of the action, aspects such as tap water that catches on fire, the concept among locals that the Second Amendment is the most important section of the Constitution, and a sorta-gay biracial couple (two guys who are into wrestling, mainly with each other) give the show a 2016 sensibility.
As the play opens, Egypt is plagued by a series of accidental suicides. Echt-British detective investigator Harmon arrives, equipped with an accent and vocabulary none of the locals understand, as well as a hunch that the suicides are not really suicide. As Harmon, Chuck E. Moore plays the straight man to the rest of the cast, delivering zingers with a stiff upper lip in contrast to the redneck caricatures of most of the rest of the cast. A wise sheriff (Tony Martin) and a clueless deputy (Michael Speck), in the tradition of Andy and Barney of Mayberry, assist, with Speck creating an appealingly brainless profile as the deputy.
Angela Davis as Cissy, driver of the local combination popsicle van and hearse, finds the most convincing middle ground between pure satire and realism. A pair of cut-off clad, heavily tattooed ladies of the town (Alexis Nabors and Abigail Palmgren) supply the sexual tension and eventual pivot point for the plot. The versatile ensemble, performing the unwitting male victims, is best when the actors cross into full-fledged cartoon characters—most impressively in the case of Kenne Earl and David Petty as Jim Bob and Billy Joe, the local gay couple.
Delightfully predictable flashbacks, blackouts, meta-reference, and the ever-declining membership of the local militia assist the unflagging momentum. Director-playwright Scott Eckert knows the formula, and knows how to keep it fresh and funny.
As in any musical, the songs are essential, and songwriters Sonny Franks and Willy Welch offer up a winning combination of comedy and witty turn of phrase, with an occasional barbed social comment. In “The Shallow End (of the Gene Pool),” a chorus of victims of marginalization laments that Charles Darwin seems to have something against them. Three small-town females view their tattoos as autobiography in “The Story of My Life,” creating a masterful mixture of comedy and touching reality. The songs are accompanied onstage by a capable trio of two steel guitars and percussion, creating a sense of intimacy and immediacy and an often amusing interplay between the actors and the musicians, as well as an aura of authentic honky-tonk. These particular songs don’t demand Loretta Lynn or Reba McEntire voices, but they do demand stolid, expressive delivery, which they receive.
The feel-good ending is illogical, inevitable, and totally appropriate for this comical distillation of one segment of America. Take it from a guy who grew up in small town Oklahoma—there’s a heavy dose of nonfiction mixed in with the whimsy of Death Takes a Harmony. As in real small town life, viewers may not be challenged or uplifted, but they will definitely be entertained by the foibles of the locals.