As I watched North Coast Repertory Theatre's The Honky Tonk Angels the other night, I was reminded of some of the shows at the defunct Theatre in Old Town--the glitzy, accessible, tourist-friendly revue- and cabaret-type pieces designed to keep San Diego's only for-profit venue afloat. Some of those entries were actually pretty watchable, like Too Old for the Chorus (But Not Too Old to Be a Star), a perky, tongue-in-cheek look at aging and ageism in our youth-obsessed culture. Angels busts the same moves, touts the same ambiance and seeks the same belly laughs from patrons in search of a little escapist fare. On that level, this San Diego premiere succeeds.
But, man, it has a hard time coming up for air. Only near the end, when the three principals have satisfied their wanderlust, does it quiet down and take stock of itself. Meantime, it's mired in its own bawdiness and flare, its feather-light story buried under crater-size smiles and childlike, screechy pleas for acceptance. This is North Coast's 26th season opener, after all; you are not leaving the theater, mister, unless and until you swear on a stack of Bibles you had fun--and we'll define the term.
Either way, enough's enough. The story's too simple to sustain the antics, and the antics defeat their purpose amid their unrefinement. That doesn't make this the worst show in the history of the universe--but it might be one of the most ingratiating.
Playwright Ted Swindley's done some fair due diligence in conceptualizing his people--they're diverse in their walks of life as they seek to fulfill their lifelong dreams of country-western stardom. Angela (Kelli Maguire) is a bored-to-tears mother of six from rural Texas; Darlene (Jenni-Lynn McMillin), a sensitive young Virginia maiden, is overwhelmed by her curiosity about the outside world; and Sue Ellen (Merideth Kaye Clark) is an L.A. transplant saddled with a humdrum office job and an oversexed boss. The gals meet on a bus to Nashville, and fate takes it from there.
The music, as you've guessed, is the driver behind it all. There are 32 country pieces here, many of them standards like 'Stand By Your Man' and 'Rocky Top,' sung in decent harmony and mediocre solo. W. Brent Sawyer directs a good five-piece band; one member is the focus of a cute bit as he hints at his thing for Michael Jackson. But it's a mystery why Swindley sticks Pam Tillis' 'Queen of Denial' and The Kentucky Headhunters' 'Trashy Women' in this play at all. Those tunes are products of today's hip, branded country scene, eons removed from the ballad-laden, muh-dawg-died-'n'-lef'-me-awl-alone fare of the last generation. They're appropriate for the plot, but they sure don't fit the set.
I think that that misstep is a product of Swindley's overeagerness to please. He's so caught up in his music choices that he forgets to color them with much of a story. Surely, director David Ellenstein knows this, and he's wisely cut his artistic losses by simply going with the flow (either that or he just doesn't grasp the show's concept). Think Theatre in Old Town, and you'll probably get something out of this. At the same time, note that there's not a single patron inside the Nashville bar at which the girls strut their stuff. That might tell you something as well.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Sept. 8. The Honky Tonk Angels runs through Oct. 7 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. $25-$43. 858-481-1055.
One dollar--one voice
Nothing's been signed, nothing's been sealed and nothing's even close to delivery. But North Coast Repertory Theatre is betting something will materialize on all three counts--and in light of a sweet lease prospect, it's got a big-time consensus to back itself up.
The theater's board has voted 20-0 to withdraw from Solana Beach's Cedros Crossing construction project, which would have included two new North Coast venues at a multi-use complex near the city's Amtrak station. The company's new campus will be built instead at the Solana Beach Plaza, its present Lomas Santa Fe Drive location--and San Diego-based American Assets, the mall's owner, has made a verbal pact to lease the land to the theater at an astronomical $1 a year for 55 years.
'They did this because of their commitment to theater and the arts and a better community,' North Coast producing artistic director David Ellenstein said. 'And now, we can build three stories, because we can build down, as opposed to on top of a parking garage. That means we can have a bigger trap and fly [space]. Essentially, we're going to have a superior facility than what we might have had at Cedros.'
Ellenstein projected the cost for the new venues at between $12 million and $25 million.
American Assets owns approximately 8 million square feet of office, retail and industrial property throughout California, Texas, Illinois and Hawaii.