Irving — Sometimes country-western music is witty, outrageous, and energetic. Sometimes it’s safe, predictable, and riddled with cliché.
Unfortunately, the new country-inspired musical Pure Country, running through next weekend at Irving Arts Center in a production by Lyric Stage, opts for the latter, for a boringly unchallenging production only slightly less dull than the 1992 movie that inspired this live stage event.
Screenwriter Rex McGee rewrote the script for this new version, sticking to the original concept of a jaded country superstar who longs to return to his small town roots, but with considerable revision of plot. Unfortunately, given the potential for the situation, and initially lively characters, McGee landed once again on a happily-ever-after ending tied to the persistent country music myth of a rural heaven out there in the small towns, dirt roads, and honkytonks, very different from the reality of rural life in the twenty-first century.
Composer Steve Dorff and lyricist John Bettis wrote the lead-in song “Heartland” for that earlier movie version starring George Strait; along with Dorff and Bettis’ “Heartland,” the movie soundtrack featured a long list of songs by various writers and composers, all sung by Strait. For the new stage version, Dorff and Bettis created a whole score of new songs spread across the cast. Although both hold impressive résumés (Bettis wrote the lyrics for the Carpenters’ ““Yesterday Once More,” Madonna’s “Crazy for You,” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”), much of the score is bogged in unadventurous decades-old Broadway style.
The magic of country-western music emerges only occasionally, with generous doses of appropriate self-pity, nostalgia, or boastful energy in items such as “Jubilee,” “Pearl Rose,” and “It Ain’t Texas.” The recycled lead song “Heartland” is in itself a pretty decent representative of the navel-gazing, self-congratulatory subgenre of country music, designed to reassure the country-western base audience that small-town folks are the best folks in the world (since, as the lyrics contend, “they still know wrong from right,” a dubious concept in light of rampant substance abuse and political alienation in said heartland).
Harley Jay takes the lead role of the disenchanted singing star Rusty Hubbard, with a decent voice that landed flat on high notes at the Sunday afternoon performance; Brent Loper turns in a much stronger, more striking performance in the supporting role of Earl Blackstock, Rusty’s estranged hometown buddy. Julie Johnson creates the humorous supporting role of Mama Ivy assertively and with fine voice, and Marissa Leach captures the essence of Harley Tucker, the quintessential tough small town girl, and the main love interest of the show. Justin Duncan impressively combines ruthlessness, cluelessness, and panic as the HBO producer Marty Foster.
Cara Statham Serber, with an eye-catching presence and a fine voice, looks ready to take the role of the ambitious business manager further than the plot allows; the role of Charlie Boles (Jacob Lewis), the superstar wannabe on the stage crew, likewise begs for more fleshing out and dramatic exploration. Youngster Eli Lujan brings appropriate innocence and earnestness as the young version of Rusty and as small town kid David Lee.
John de los Santos’ directing and choreography provides the momentum and saving grace that keeps the predictable plot moving forward; Santos is particularly impressive in providing an ensemble of very mixed body types and skill levels with constantly engaging choreography based on real dance-hall dancing. Randel Wright’s scenery convincingly and efficiently takes us to a country front yard, a small-town honky tonk (complete with life-size cutout of George Strait), and backstage at a giant arena show; the projected shots of interstate and city limits signs was a simple, obvious, and quite effective of revealing the superstar’s journey homeward. In keeping with Lyric Stage’s best tradition and practice, the accompanying ensemble, an authentic country-western band directed by Eugene Gwodz, supports excellently onstage.
Lyric Stage has, over the past 25 years, built an impressive record of new work and then high-quality productions of classic American Broadway musicals with an emphasis on musical values, particularly in the form of acoustic orchestral accompaniment. The production of new works is a valuable auxiliary function, one that it focused on for its first 15 years. After the company relocates from suburban Irving to venues in downtown Dallas beginning in September, that secondary function should certainly continue, but with attention to new works with more daring and imagination.