"All roads lead to Tippo," declares the sooty, ramshackle sign at the edge of this jerkwater South Georgia burg. That's only half the equation, of course, as those dusty trails just as abruptly point the way out of town. Tippo's economy has been resting squarely at the bottom of the commode since the cotton mill took a hike; the lone holdouts drown their sorrows over at the pasty Frog Pad music dive and pretty much "pass around the same $5 bill" as the village teeters on the brink.
But just as Holcomb, Kan., became a destination celébre after Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Tippo is about to undergo a cultural transformation in The People vs. Mona, the current musical from San Diego State University's Department of Theatre, Television and Film. Only this time, the crime is framed just a touch more tongue-in-cheek. It's all very small-town hokey, and it's all very silly, and there's a lot of yelling and running around, and serious playgoers will maybe wish they'd caught MOXIE Theatre's great Limonade tous les Jours when they had the chance-but damned if Mona doesn't work on its own level, and sometimes pretty darn well.
Director Paula Kalustian can't do much about Patricia Miller and Jim Wann's text. It's rarely more than an excuse to introduce the 18 numbers, and it's dotted with anticlimactic lines like "Mona, your alibi just bought the farm" and "The New South is all about new money-mine!" And try as it might, it doesn't quite follow through on a couple promising understories, like the forgiveness of sin and Tippo's plans to legalize gambling in the wake of its newfound notoriety.
But the music, directed by Terry O'Donnell, is bloated and garish-exactly what's called for alongside the absurd plot points, to wit: Frog Pad owner Mona Katt's under arrest for the murder of her philandering newlywed husband (seems somebody bashed the boy's brains in with Mona's Stratocaster). The trial is presided over by a judge who doubles as a fundamentalist reverend, and the money-crazed prosecutor (who's also the defense attorney's fiancée) isn't shy about her aspirations to Georgia's governorship. Meanwhile, Mona's main witness croaks on the stand; a Stevie Wonder clone places Mona at the scene of the killing through his sense of smell; and a traffic cop arrests himself for effing up the original manhunt. (Told you it was hokey.)
If you opt to look beyond all that, you'll find some decent casting to type. Defense attorney Jim Summerford is pale, ungainly and unsuspecting and has lost all the cases he's ever tried; Kelly Baldwin has all those affectations down clean. He's also at ease as he jumps out of the scenes to narrate-and amid the flurry of action, this story definitely needs a narrator. Kelsey Venter's Mona; Ryan Beattie's prosecutor Mavis Frye; Jamie Kalama's Judge Ella Jordan; Nicole Werner's delicious journalist Tish Thomas; the assorted others tasked with caricatured parts: Everybody's on board, none more so than Justin Harlin, who totally nails the jaded traffic officer Gordon Bell.
Tippo eventually opens a museum about the trial and its surprise outcome. That's probably not the brightest idea-this is textbook farce, and a conclusion like that presumes character development, which isn't an element in this genre. But Sean Fanning's dowdy set does invite the prospect of new money and construction, and the rest of the tech work finds a similarly appropriate place.
Another thing, too: Y'gotta remember that this is university theater, with a vitality all its own. College football players harbor no illusions about their chances at the NFL draft, and most university-level theater peeps cop to their prospects in a field with an unemployment rate of around 80 percent. In both endeavors, the kids' minds and hearts are likely elsewhere, and the complexion of their performances changes accordingly. That's what happens with SDSU's Mona. It has its loose ends and its tentative moments, but under the circumstances, that doesn't make it a bad show.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Feb. 24. The People vs. Mona runs through March 5 at SDSU's Don Powell Theatre, 5500 Campanile Drive. $12-$15. 619-594-6884.