“Once we’ve gotten snagged by the story, Montgomery reels in its audience as a fresh and captivating cat-and-mouse game in which it’s never quite clear who’s winning, nor is it possible to discern the tears of laughter from the sentimental sniffles…
It isn’t often that a troupe of character archetypes and well-worn caricatures can be successfully interwoven from two stories into one, especially when each has its grounding in a largely conflicting style and base of reality, but occasionally the unlikely does occur. Such is the case in the lovably lopsided world of Stephen Brown’s Montgomery, a world premiere comedy making its debut as the winner of the 2018 Trustus Playwrights’ Festival. One part southern-fried knee-slapper, complete with bumbling cops and one-liners reminiscent of the best of Jeff Foxworthy or the late Lewis Grizzard, paired with a slightly twisted Hallmark movie with a twang, this odd couple combination not only amuses and entertains, it works.
Before discussing the production, however, I must tip my hat and raise my frosty bottle of Lone Star to playwright Brown, who obviously did his research and took his time in creating a believable, cohesive, and surprisingly consistent reality while spinning a hilarious tale that isn’t afraid to get serious on occasion. With plotlines harkening back to The Dukes Of Hazzard and All My Children simultaneously, each liberally peppered with tastes of Greater Tuna, Mamma Mia!, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and numerous other pop-culture touchstones, Brown clearly revels in gentle parody, yet creates an entirely original and believable story.
Make no mistake; there’s plenty of borrowing/inspiration from other stage and film works here, but absolutely nothing is stolen. Montgomery may feel familiar, but for every punchline you watch approaching from a mile away, there are at least two moments of surprise and a whispered “well, I didn’t see that coming!” Brown’s script lands the audience in the manner of an experienced angler. We may be initially hooked by the foul-mouthed, slovenly, down-home martinet in the Sheriff’s Office or the cute country girl clad in short shorts that would have put Dawn Wells’ Mary Ann to shame, but they’re just the bait. Once we’ve gotten snagged by the story, Montgomery reels in its audience as a fresh and captivating cat-and-mouse game in which it’s never quite clear who’s winning, nor is it possible to discern the tears of laughter from the sentimental sniffles involuntarily presenting themselves at unexpected moments. Overlaying all the action is a subtle lesson about wishes, dreams, and how getting “everything you ever wanted” sometimes yields unexpected losses as well as gains.
In a nutshell, the primary plot centers around Megan and Kimmy, two Texas teenagers who manage to kidnap country music star, Rick Montgomery. Though the grab succeeds, the detention is exactly as slapdash and immature as one would expect from a pair of kids whose biggest previous transgressions were most likely hiding in the woods smoking cigarettes or sneaking into an R-rated movie. Aspiring badasses though they may be, Megan and Kimmy aren’t even yet of legal driving age, which makes their attempts at swagger and menace all the more endearing and hilarious. In parallel time, (with occasionally intersecting moments) there’s trouble afoot at the police station, as the Governor himself is pressuring local law enforcement to find Montgomery in time to play at a re-election fundraiser. Along with Patty, the perpetually irascible and arguably hungover officer in charge, the law is represented by classic good-ole-boys Larry and Chet. Larry is good-hearted but meekly ineffectual, while Chet is largely ignorant of, yet obsessed with such technology as body cams and his YouTube channel.
The stories link when we learn that Larry is actually Megan’s adopted father, who makes excuses for her teenage antics (such as twice “accidentally” setting her school’s chemistry lab on fire) while desperately trying to connect with her and create a stable family life. In a scene that manages to be LOL-funny and heartbreaking, we see Megan manipulate Larry’s paternal instincts as a cover for having a kidnapped celebrity detained in her bedroom. Meanwhile, beta-female Kimmy (who always follows Megan’s orders) opens up to an increasingly befuddled Montgomery about her own musical aspirations. There is more to Kimmy than meets the eye, however, as she eventually winds up displaying sufficient backbone to bring the insanity to a fulfilling, weirdly happy conclusion.
The casting is superb, with praise being due to Director Sharon Graci for her expert eye in filling each role with an ideal and perfectly-suited actor. Having been around Columbia’s stages for about a decade, I know or have at least seen performances by most of the area’s performers, and I truly could not come up with any alternative casting that would have improved on Graci’s. This is an assemblage of pros which fully embraces the material and works together seamlessly. As Megan, Cassidy Spencer proves true a hunch that I had several months ago, having seen her in Trustus’ Heathers: The Musical. Though she had a small ensemble role, I kept noticing her, to the point of having mentioned in the review that I hoped to see her take on larger parts in future productions. Having had that opportunity with Montgomery, I am happy to say that my instinct was correct, and that she can handle a leading role with aplomb and great skill.
As Megan’s foil and underling, Lilly Heidari provides an excellent counterpoint as Kimmy, who is slightly younger in years and significantly more childlike than her world-weary-at-fourteen mentor. Though the script doesn’t delve too deeply into the subject, we do learn that Kimmy lives with her grandmother, which likely served as a subliminal connecting point with the adopted Megan, who brusquely rejects the parents she sees as “not really hers.” While presented as rural, middle-class Texans, the girls are hardly sophisticates, but neither are they impoverished or victimized by the hazards facing slum-dwelling outcasts. Each has her own unlikely dreams, (ironically, each involving a guitar) and have most probably shared their aspirations over many weekend sleepovers and square-pizza-and-corn high school lunchroom repasts. I have no idea how close Spencer and Heidari are in real life, but they have done outstanding work in establishing two characters who interact with the verbal and physical ease of old friends.
Having been most recently seen on the Trustus stage as the ever-so-dapper and smooth-talking Jay Gatsby in last spring’s The Great Gatsby, Jason Stokes does a delightful 180 as the aging, haggard, somewhat over-it-all, music industry burnout who still retains a country-boy handsomeness and charm. There’s a hint of a fiftyish Harrison Ford to his characterization, which immediately reminded me of the line from Raiders Of The Lost Ark, when a battered, exhausted, and punchy Indiana Jones admits “it’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” Stokes’ Montgomery is a cynic suffering from a minor head wound and recreational drug deprivation, but even in his moments of anger, he never comes across as unsympathetic. It’s clear that this guy has seen it all and done most of it twice, but he obviously realizes he’s dealing with a pair of messed-up but harmless teens, even serving as the voice of reason on occasion. Solid throughout, Stokes rises to the peak of his performance near the end of act one, when an unlikely situation leads to a revelation that could have been overplayed in reaction by a less skilled actor. No spoilers, but watch for a cliché plot twist made new and interesting through a unique, believable response from a much more substantial Rick Montgomery than his concert audiences might imagine.
Meanwhile, back at the police station, Patty does her best to get the B-team of the four officers under her command to grow some sense and find Montgomery, all the while dealing with the Governor and his Chief of Staff who demand constant updates. Elena Martinez-Vidal introduces Patty as a female version of Jackie Gleason’s famous Buford T. Justice of Smokey And The Bandit fame, complete with almost-affectionate but scathing commentary on Larry and Chet’s incompetence, yet reveals a softer side when things get truly serious for a minute about halfway through the second act. Though the two characters have no connection, Martinez-Vidal uses Patty’s gruff-but-decent personality to provide another link between the somewhat disparate storylines, mirroring Montgomery’s hard-boiled exterior and significantly gentler soul. Both Patty and Montgomery are grownups who have been “rode hard and put up wet” more than a few times, and neither is thrilled with having to deal with a pair of goofballs who are unable to act their respective ages. While Montgomery is forced to deal with a pair of teenagers who think they’re adults, Patty must endure the travails of shepherding two grown men who act like not-so-bright high schoolers. As does Stokes, Martinez-Vidal rises to the challenge of both embracing a stereotype and playing against it.
Having praised Kevin Bush’s versatility in multiple reviews, I will now repeat myself in saying that his Larry is yet another example of Bush’s chameleon-like ability to literally transform himself into a role. His first appearance finds Larry shooting a commercial of sorts for Chet’s ambitious shot at creating a COPS-style reality show. Complete with cowboy hat, slouching posture, and a dialect somewhat reminiscent of Slim Pickens with a hint of Andy Griffith tossed in for good measure, Bush was literally unrecognizable to me for about the first five minutes of his stage time. At turns both pathetic and heroic, Bush once again somehow manages to leave his real-life embodiment offstage, creating Larry from a presumably blank slate. Though not as textured by dialogue, Gabe Reitemeier’s Chet is an eager, if not-too-bright, little brother figure to Larry, oftentimes calming the situation when Larry’s anxieties get the better of him. In keeping with the myriad of nods (intentional or otherwise) to other characters and realities, Reitemeier pulls his share of belly-laughs with a close approximation of the patois and speech patterns of the mumblingly philosophical Boomhauer from Mike Judge’s King Of The Hill. As with Spencer and Heidari, Bush and Reitemeier present a relationship that seems completely natural and long-established, which plays successfully off their mutual respect for/aggravation with Patty. The police station is an internal reality to the larger world of the show, but it follows its own rules to the letter. Again, no spoilers, but keep an eye out for the golden moment of hilarity while the three officers wait for the office printer to complete a job. No words are spoken, but it’s one of the most side-splitting moments in a very funny show.
Curtis Smoak’s scenic design, much like the script, simultaneously manages to pull off sleek minimalism and a vaguely cluttered reality. Projections are utilized, but not overused, giving the show the look and feel of an extended sketch-comedy skit, which embraces a staged theatricality to great success. Such expansive locales as a packed concert arena and a crowded interstate are cheekily created with little more than lighting (courtesy of Lighting Designer Laura Anthony) and small furniture pieces, which suits the theme and style of Montgomery. Costume Designer Janine McCabe dresses her actors appropriately, with an eye toward costuming as an extention of each character. From Spencer’s rocker-chick look to Martinez-Vidal’s gradual transformation from half-dressed slob to crisply ironed and outfitted officer, the costumes reinforce and support the action without ever getting in its way. Director Graci serves double duty as Sound Designer, and has included a playlist of country music standards from the 70s and 80s, which give the action a satisfyingly old-school feel. If Montgomery were a film, you would expect to see a touch of graininess to the print, as well as the occasional jump of a few seconds resulting from a slightly botched reel edit. In addition to the radio classics of old, Montgomery features two original works composed by Eliza Simpson; the title theme and a dream-sequence concert number, “Star Quality,” sung by Kimmy as she imagines her future as a Nashville icon.
Montgomery continues its run this weekend, so there are only a few more chances to catch this little jewel of a comedy with heart. Now get on down to Trustus, pop open a cold beer, munch some popcorn, and enjoy a wild ride that will occasionally melt your heart.
Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.
(CORRECTION - Chad Henderson both designed the sound and cast the actors for Montgomery. Jasper regrets our error.)