“Welcome to the Grand Ole Opry!” I was greeted as I stepped from the lobby into the intimate and hospitable atmosphere of the On Stage Performance Center, which is housed in the Hugh Dimmery Memorial Center, nicknamed “The Barn”- apropos of the night’s anticipated entertainment. LEGENDS: Country Music Show, On Stage Productions’ season opener, as well as its director, cast, crew, volunteers, and even the members of the audience, personify the “community” in community theatre. As this was my very first invitation to sit on the reviewer’s side of a production, as opposed to being the subject of a review, and due to my tendency to be a dogged overachiever, I was, predictably, a bit nervous about my assignment and about doing everything ‘the right way’. Not to worry, however. I was immediately put at ease, drawn into the fold and treated like an old friend - in a similar manner to the traditional country music concept of belonging to a big family.
LEGENDS is a country music revue, arranged by director Robert Harrelson, and musical director John Norris. For a first attempt at creating and producing a musical revue, the pair has fashioned a thoughtfully organized and obviously well-researched show. Harrelson, in his personable pre-show speech, described Act I of the production as a selection of songs from “Broadway shows with a country flair,”while Act II features a salute to the Grand Ole Opry and its country music legends. (The concept of the salute is established throughout the show, from the Act I salute to Broadway, to the finale's presentation of the US flag and the beautifully clear voice of young actor Tucker Privette, singing the first verse of “God Bless America,” while maintaining a solemn salute.)
True to the community spirit, Harrelson continued his speech, throwing in a plug for the theatre’s several creative Building Fund campaign activities, which take place throughout the show, observing “Theatre tries everything, don’t we?” My favorite of these strategies was during the first act finale, where actors perform a song from Pump Boys and Dinettes, entitled “Tips”, while roaming the audience with collection baskets, commenting in character “You got more than I did!” and “Well y’all didn’t shake it enough”. They were so witty and charming that audience members are more than willing to offer donations. (As On Stage Productions is a non-profit theatre, these fundraising efforts are crucial to support its mission.)
On Stage Productions demonstrates just how invested their neighbors are through the numbers of volunteers working in all aspects of production. Several board members wear the additional hats of actor and/or crew. Board member and Set Designer Tony Vaccaro effectively recreates the red barn set from the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, for 31 years the original home of The Grand Ole Opry. The set also calls to mind the set of Hee Haw, a mock barn interior that was in use until the 1980’s, which is appropriate given the vintage-variety-show-like staging of Act I, complete with an appearance by a cross-dressing monk taking the part of Minnie Pearl. Solo acts and small group performances are book-ended by ensemble numbers that fill the auditorium with the spirited voices of the group.
The first act begins with a brief contribution from narrator and first singer in the line up- Ernestine (Kaitlyn Dillard). She portrays a charming Hazel-like housekeeper with a country twist, and breaks the fourth wall (i.e. speaks directly to the audience) to set the scene. The ensemble follows, taking the stage with animated faces and voices, performing selections from Oklahoma. The actors are accompanied by Norris on the piano. Norris makes a delightfully unexpected cameo in Act II, singing the low notes (“giddy-up…”) on The Oak Ridge Boys favorite “Elvira”. He continues to contribute his pleasing bass voice to a few other songs. I wish, however, that he had been outfitted with a personal microphone and perhaps a slightly higher stool, so he could have been seen and especially heard better. He is almost completely drowned out when the ensemble joins him for Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord” near the end of the show. This song and several others, however, are notable inclusions as examples of the integral influence of gospel music on country songs.
Dolly Parton once said, “If you talk bad about country music, it’s like saying bad things about my momma. Them’s fightin’ words.” Keeping that in mind, I have no ‘bad things’ to say about the production beyond commenting on a few awkward spots, which I’ll get to after I commend some of the decidedly-prevailing high points in the show. Among a very capable ensemble, a few cast members really stand out. Rachel Rizzuti and Robert Bullock shine, both vocally and dramatically. Rachel Rizzuti, a relative newcomer to the Columbia theatre scene, is magnetic every time she steps on stage. Her first appearance of the evening is in the character of Dolly Parton, singing the song “Backwoods Barbie” and sharing the stage with the witty Linda Brochin for the hit song “9 to 5”. (How Brochin manages to distinctly spit out those super-fast lyrics and pantomime applying makeup in the mirror at the same time is beyond me, but she conquers the tricky tongue twists with finesse.)
Vocally, Rizzuti is a dead ringer for Dolly, particularly when she effortlessly trills those country notes in her lovely higher register. She is also featured in a number of other songs, continuing to sparkle (figuratively and literally in her long gown) while she croons Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and collaborates on a memorable rendition of the Johnny and June Carter Cash duet, “Jackson” with Robert Bullock. As much as I love Brochin’s contralto voice (reminiscent of Joni Mitchell) and her emotional interpretation of “Hard Candy Christmas” (from Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), I would also have loved to hear Rizzuti apply her Dolly Parton skills to the song. Brochin’s rendition of Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA,” however, was one of my favorites of the evening. She is a talented actress as well as vocalist and her interpretation conveys both the humor in the tale the song tells, as well as the determination of a single-mother standing up to the local aristocracy in that era - not an easy task while singing a country song in a theatre setting.
Highlights of the songs performed by Robert Bullock, who really knows how to work the room, include “Mama Said”, from the musical Footloose, Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin’” and a medley of songs by Elvis Presley, which incorporated crowd-pleasing audience interaction and an impressive big finish. Not only does Bullock have rich, dynamic vocal skills and a captivating stage presence, but his comedic ability takes the spotlight in Bobby Bare’s song “Marie Laveau”. Bullock’s interpretation of the Voodoo queens “GREEEEEEEEEEEE...” was so hysterically funny that I felt compelled to draw a small sketch of his gesticulations, so that I wouldn’t forget a single detail. The audience was practically on the floor laughing.
You would never guess that JJ Woodall is a newcomer to the stage, as he seems as comfortable there as if he had been entertaining all his life. His renditions of Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” and “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” by Freddy Fender are particularly impressive. His clear, tone-rich voice and the evident emotion on his face carry the songs, with no need for props or choreography. Most notable is his tribute to Hank Williams, singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” He captures Williams’ singing style and his use of vocal inflections, conveying the sentiments behind the simple, conversational lyrics, and had the crowd toe-tapping and knee-slapping. One item of note: I was confused by his absence on stage during the final number, in favor of bearing the flag; his being one of the strongest voices in the ensemble.
Awkward moments, however, are few, as this is a well-organized show and a capable cast. I was mildly frustrated by the low volume of the hanging microphones and my inability to hear a few of the solo numbers as well as I would have liked. That being said, there were a couple of happy instances where I was able to recognize lyrics that I had previously never understood. I was stymied by the program’s lack of detail regarding which actors sing what songs, though my confusion was likely my own fault for trying to take so many notes (Remember what I said about over-achieving?). A typical audience member would probably not require the particulars for which I was hunting.
As the show came to a close that night, the entire audience rose to its feet to show respect for the flag, presented during Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”. We never sat back down. We stayed on our feet through the completion of the song, waiting to give the cast a standing ovation.
Country music has been described as a ‘homegrown American art form.’ Faith Hill described it as “…the people’s music. It just speaks about real life and about truth and it tells things how they really are.” The family-friendly, entertaining, and down-home style of LEGENDS nails these sentiments. People of all ages will find something to love about the show. Note to parents: the production has an early curtain at 7:30 and lasts only a little over 2 hours, so plenty of time to treat the kids to some culture and still get them to bed on time.
Harrelson told me that he hopes to expand the reach of the current On Stage “community” and begin to attract more theatergoers from wider regions of the Columbia metropolitan area. With the all-ages appeal of shows like this, contagious enthusiasm like this cast has, and the ever-present welcoming tone of every person you encounter, there is little doubt that continued growth of the On Stage family is just around the corner.
LEGENDS continues its run at On Stage Productions September 25th through the 28th. Curtain is at 7:30, with the exception of the Sunday matinee, which begins at 2:30. For ticket information, visit www.onstagesc.com. The On Stage Performance Center is located at 680 Cherokee Rd. in West Columbia. From downtown Columbia, you simply cross the Blossom St. bridge and head out Charleston Highway, veering on to Airport Blvd. Cherokee Lane is the right just before I-26, which it parallels.
~ Dell Goodrich
Dell Goodrich began singing and dancing on the stages of Columbia community theatres as a child. Over the years she has performed at Workshop, Trustus, and Town Theatres, as well as in a variety of benefit and special-event shows. She most recently appeared as Tammy Wynette in Town Theatre’s Stand By Your Man. She has also sung in bands in Columbia and England, and still occasionally has the pleasure of sitting in with local groups. She holds bachelor's and master's degrees in Anthopology and an MAT in Education (Social Studies), all from USC, and has completed all but her dissertation for an Ed.D. in Instructional Leadership from Nova Southeastern University.