Country Music can be slippery territory for musical theater: It deals with primal emotions, lost love, heartbreak and gettin’ even. That might make for a powerful musical. But Play It by Heart, at Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company, has taken these elements and run aground with soap opera-ish caricatures and stereotype. That’s not to say this new show is lacking moments of entertainment and appeal.
The contribution of bookwriter Brian Yorkey, a creator of the prize-winning musical next to normal, seems like a plus. But it yields expectations that this show doesn’t fulfill. In fact, its first incarnation predates his 2006 Broadway hit with composer Tom Kitt. For Play It by Heart, Yorkey worked with Country Music songwriter David Spangler and theater veteran Jerry Taylor to produce an early staging in Seattle in 2005.
It gathered dust for several years before HRTC’s Kevin Moore discovered it. He learned that the show’s creators hoped to refine it — tighter scripting, a new character and some different songs. That led to a well received reading a year ago in Dayton as part of Moore’s annual summer workshop at HRTC for new musicals and a decision to conclude the 2013-2014 season with a full production.
With Moore directing a cast of excellent performers, Play It by Heart is likely improved from its production in Seattle. Trisha Rapier, who dazzled HRTC audiences a year ago as the bipolar mom in a staging of next to normal, plays Jeannine Jasper, a 40-something Country Music star à la Tammy Wynette, who’s had a big career but has wearied of what it takes to stay on top. Her ruthless mother Naomi (Sharva Maynard, who played the same role in Seattle nine years ago) is driven to keep the gravy train rolling. Jeannine’s sister Jamie Lynn (CCM grad Kathryn Boswell) resents her sister’s fame and her mother’s efforts to keep the younger Jasper preoccupied with appearances on reality TV and international travel. When Jeannine’s long-ago boyfriend Billy Tucker (Paul Blankenship) turns up, his presence stirs the pot with old memories and the reinforcing temptation of stepping back to a simpler life.
There are elements of an engaging story here — not to mention moments for some good songs. “Sorry?” a duel between the three women, is feisty fun, and the nostalgic “Blue Eagle Ballroom” feels like a classic. But Yorkey’s script keeps dropping unbelievable plot complications. Jeannine’s recording label is purchased by a wealthy businessman from Dubai who delegates management to his Harvard-educated but culturally naïve son Naji (George Psomas); Naji becomes infatuated with Jamie Lynn. The revelation of a family secret deepens the bad blood between Jeannine and Jami Lynn and throws a big monkey wrench into Jeannine’s reunion with Billy. Her spot on the County Music Awards (designed to culminate with her induction into the Hall of Fame) is preempted by the amateur sexpot Jamie Lynn. Things work out in the end, but not before a lot of conniving and handwringing — and philosophizing from Naji, who is a voice of reason, although his perspective feels contrived.
None of this stops Kevin Moore from giving this implausible collection of twists and turns a fine staging with strong musical performances. Adam Koch has designed scenic elements that roll out and slide into place, allowing HRTC’s broad thrust stage to morph from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and a dressing room on a tour bus to a folksy kitchen, a comfortable bar and a hospital room.
The show opens with a whirlwind reproduction of Jeannine’s exhausting tour schedule that moves from one side of the stage to another. It has vivacious backup by Christine Brunner (also playing a pushy TV reporter), Cooper Taggard and J. J. Tiemeyer (as Robbie, Jeannine’s scheming manager and the show’s undeveloped villain). The second act showcases the men, including Scott Stoney as Naomi’s long-suffering husband Buck, who sings the show’s title tune, a “family lullaby” about being strong and carrying on.
Backed by a solid six-musician band placed behind the action (Nils-Petter Ankarblom is the music director), Rapier comes across as a convincing Country star. On her own (her plaintive “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” is a good example) and with Maynard and Boswell (“Common Ground”), she routinely delivers the show’s best musical numbers. But Play It by Heart has too many predictable conflicts and one-dimensional personalities and not nearly enough genuine, supported emotion. A good play is missing, but if you sit back and listen, you’ll hear a lot of great songs performed really well.
PLAY IT BY HEART, presented by Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company, continues through July 6.