Dallas — What’s not to like about a couple of guys in plaid shirts and overalls with a banjo and a guitar, smiling and strumming their way through an opening number welcoming the audience to Kornfield Kounty? “Mountaineers” and narrators Rob Morrison and Aaron Ramey make it easy to enter the mythical setting and aw-shucks home of laid-back Southern rednecks where “you’re always welcome to come on in, unless the trailer’s rockin’!”
We’re entering the down-home, small-town, huggin’-in-the-haystack world of Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, where the men have facial hair and the women have huge knockers. It’s all onstage in the world premiere at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre, presented by Dallas Theater Center, presented in association with Opry Entertainment and Fox Theatricals.
Included in the ticket price is a six-member band, an enthusiastic 16-member cast outfitted in Mara Blumenfeld’s skimpy midriffs and cut-offs or tight jeans with big buckles, and a tail-waggin’ bloodhound named Beauregard played by a handsome pair of rescue dogs (Peter or Lilly, depending on the performance you see).
So why isn’t this totally hot-dang? It’s fun, but a little long and a lot homogenized.
The country-pop musical, inspired by the popular TV series that ran for a few seasons beginning in 1969, but lasted in syndication for nearly two decades, is a gentle spoof of the show with songs by award-winning country music writers Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, linked by a joke-pumped, boy-loses-girl book written by Robert Horn and directed by Gary Griffin. The love story is predictable, and you’ll recognize the characters from the country jukebox, but the songs are clever and playful, and the first-rate cast has fun with the stereotype aspect of their characters, and infuses some real heart into this ode to the ol’ white folks back in the heartland.
Miss Kornfield Kounty Misty Mae (petite, wide-eyed brunette soprano Rose Hemingway) boards the Greyhound bus to discover the big-city world of Tampa, Florida, leaving behind her broken-hearted high school sweetheart Bucky, Jr. (sad-eyed, hunky Ken Clark). Right away, cutie-pie optimist Misty Mae gets hired as the TV weather girl, because she’s so upbeat that the rain shuts down when she lifts her umbrella. Something like that. Anyway, she falls for handsome city slicker Gordy (a clean-shaven, deliciously sleazy Justin Guarini), who only wants to marry her to get under her grandpa’s house and access some rare minerals to pay off his gambling debts.
The corn hits the popper when Misty Mae takes Gordy home, and all the townsfolk get riled up over Bucky Jr.’s “heapin’ helpin’ of haystack heartbreak,” and haul out their jugs of moonshine (and yes—the other jugs) to put this stranger to the test during the big corn shuckin’ festival.
Horn’s goofy jokes and shameless puns leaven the country-heavy cobbler throughout—and the cast delivers the one-liners with a sly wink. The repository for much of the fun is Kevin Cahoon, a rubber-faced, flat-voiced comic in the role of Jr. Jr., Bucky Jr.’s little brother and the town’s city clerk and cornpone philosopher. “What’s on your mind?” asks a cousin. “My hat,” says literal-literal Jr. Jr.
Big-bosomed Ryah Nixon is a hoot as Lulu, no dumb country blonde, but a moonshine entrepreneur with a proprietor’s attitude toward all her products and endowments.
The hand-clapping, fun-poking songs are more interesting than the ballads, with their conventional tunes and outcomes. Hemingway and Clark are sharper and more convincing in their arguing songs than in their make-up songs, because the satiric style of the songwriters favors antagonism. In the same way, Guarini’s delivery of “Misty” is funny and sexy because when he opens his mouth to seduce by song, a pop orchestra swells behind him and disco lights roll across John Lee Beatty’s bright set design, that slides cornfields, haystacks and general stores behind the fast-moving cast.
The score has a certain sameness after a couple of hours, but Stephen Oremus’ playful arrangements—including one number with the actors grabbing hoes, plungers and washboards to nail the beat, lend visual and audio surprise.
Denis Jones’ high-powered and clever choreography energizes the show throughout. From variations on a square dance, to a kind of hoedown throw-down, the whole cast gets moving in funny, fine-fiddling numbers like “Our Crooked Family Tree.” At one point the Gordy and Grandpa (white-maned, sweet-faced P.J. Benjamin) crush coke cans on their feet and do a terrific soft-shoe with a brushing sound I’d never heard.
The creative ensemble effort here, expertly pulled together by Griffin, goes a long way in focusing a show about Hee Haw on the hilarious hijinks of kissin’ cousins, rather than the ho-hums of life in a small town. I’m thinkin’ hardly any such township has a Jr. Jr. with the smarts to know that “lots of good could be better by adding a bear.” Really.