A CurtainUp Review
Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge
To the foreboding strums of a guitar, a mysterious man named Clayton appears one day at the home of Maggie and her father, J.M. Filthy and disheveled, Clayton announces that he is on the run after killing his father with a shovel. Even more mysteriously, J.M. decides that Clayton is just the person to employ as his new hired man to look out for Maggie, who reluctantly plans to wed the bumbling Luther in two days. But as Clayton scrubs the dirt from his face, it's clear that there is something about him that is irresistible—something otherworldly, but also, judging from the swoons of the neighbor women, something to do with the handsome image reflected back in Maggie's hand mirror.
The standoffish Maggie initially resists Clayton's attentions, but soon begins to wonder if he is the man she always dreamed would appear to take her away. Of course, Clayton's past eventually catches up with him in a raucous fashion, but not before he upends the daily routine of the small community.
Bookwriter Cara Reichel (who also directs) has filled the dialogue with a forced hill country vernacular that includes such twisty turns of phrase as "You ain't humbuggin' me" and "You look like death eating a cracker." I lost count of the number of times I heard a character say "a'feared." But although these colorful expressions often seem contrived when they arise in plain speech, in song they spring to believable life. Even the hackneyed description "brambles in her heart" sounds right, somehow, when sung in Clayton and Maggie's love duet, which features the lovely lyric "there's more to me I only see with you."
With its rustic, homespun charms, Golden Boy's man-disrupts-life-of-stoic-woman plot is a familiar one. Last year's Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade, for example, a musical adaptation of the play The Rainmaker, also chronicled the change that jolts through a town when a strapping stranger appears from the wilderness. What sets Golden Boy apart are its unique, irresistible songs; composer Peter Mills has created an enigmatic, evocative score that tells the story better than any dialogue could.
A few songs wear out their welcome—early on, with the music meandering along at a snail's pace as it teases out Clayton's story in bits and pieces. But when band members Dennis Keefe (bass), Matthew Dure (guitar), and Mike Rosengarten (banjo and mandolin) take center stage, donning aprons to sing about their unrequited love for "A Wanted Man," the story kicks into gear as they accompany themselves in this perky, plucky song. The trio pop into the action at various moments, an excellent choice that further synthesizes the music and the story. Music director Eli Zoller leads the fantastic 5-member band, which also features Melody Allegra Berger on the fiddle. In fact, I overheard many audience members murmuring that they wished they could purchase a CD of the music to take with them—here's hoping this score might be preserved through a recording at some point in the future.
Tate R. Burmeister's rustic, wood-planked set effectively summons up the meager home of Maggie and her father. It's a cozy stage, but Reichel makes the most of the space, particularly during a rousing chase scene, in which characters catapult themselves through a surprising array of nooks and crannies.
The show opens with the rousing "Way Out Back and Beyond," which creates a foreboding atmosphere, most potently through Evan Purcell's ominous lighting, which creates striking silhouettes behind the actors. The characters move through a series of pantomimes that foreshadow the story, and the choreography, with its percussive stomping, resembles an aggressive square dance. This tempestuous tone evaporates after the powerful opening, fading into a more restrained mood, and the performers offer a similarly uneven batch of acting approaches. Dan Sharkey gives a persuasive but steadfastly over-the-top performance as J.M., complete with bulging eyes and sputtering surliness. As Leroy, the ghost of Clayton's past, Scott Wakefield offers a similarly outsize (but convincing) characterization.
On the more realistic end, Carol Hickey strikes the perfect balance of silliness and simplicity as neighborhood gossip Hazel. As the lightweight Luther, Jeff Edgerton provides much of the show's physical comedy and shows a gift for slapstick humor—he also dances superbly (and defensively) to prove himself worthy of Maggie.
Mark Mozingo sings sweetly as tortured bad-boy Clayton, but it's Victoria Huston-Elem's wonderfully grounded performance as Maggie that is the heart of the production. She brings such depth to her performance that you wish there were more there for her to act. Much of Maggie's background is a murky mystery, but, as in the best achy melodies, you know there's much more beneath the surface than meets the ear. Her striking delivery of the plaintive ballad "Golden Boy" is one of the show's loveliest moments.
If the lyric "I was born lonesome as a moon at dawn" speaks to you, you're going to love Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge. There's something immediately engaging about the shivering guitar chords and casual camaraderie of this music, and although there's ultimately not much of a story to tell, in this production, the music effectively becomes its own story. And begs the question: What will the Prospect Theater Company come up with next?
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