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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
I was a bit iffy as to whether Chekhov's Russians could come alive convincingly with a Country Western twang. But a cast featuring the likes of Kate Baldwin, Erin Dilly and Bob Stillman, along with pleasant memories of Kimmel's effective libretto for the Romeo and Juliet musical The Last Goodbye I saw at Williamstown a few years ago, sent me to 59E59's Theater A with high hopes.
I'm happy to report that my hopes weren't dashed. Kate Baldwin's Tammy Trip, is a believable version of the selfish Madame Arkadina. The same is true for the rest of Kimmel's transplanted Russians. As the fading actress is now a fading country star, the other characters' names, as well as their dreams and heartbreaks, are adjusted to suit the Nashville locale and life style.
Anyone who's ever seen The Seagull will have no problem recognizing their Chekhovian origins: from the sensitive son now named Dean (Adam Cochran). . . to his ambitious girlfriend Mia (Ephie Aardema) who's seduced by Arkadina's — I mean Tammy's — successful but shallow boy toy (Eric William Morris) . . . to the always endearing Bob Stillman as Tammy's brother.
And, boy oh, boy, can they deliver Lauren Pitchard's twangy songs. While it's not a sung-through musical, the songs just keep coming along so that narrative action and music do feel all of a piece. For any but all-out country western enthusiasts, however, all these songs are likely to be a bit too much of a good thing.
The show begins with a prologue that flashes back to the Grand Ole Opry debut that started Tammy Trip on a legendary career of countless platinum albums. Baldwin has the looks and energy to convincingly play her own young self. Her rather lengthy "Small Town Heart" segues right into the honky tonk bar that is the small town heart of her life (and the girlhood country home of Chekhov's Arkadina).
Here we meet the rest of the people Tammy has neglected over the years. True to the source play the happy reunion turns less so with Tammy's drink fueled, disruption of son Dean's song debut she's come back to support. So too, young Mia's infatuation with the glamorous California songwriter tethered to Tammy is doomed to disaster.
Under JVMercanti's direction the cast sails from song to dialogue to song. The show overall projects the sense of a much fuller, run down, smoke-filled honky tonk bar in Nashville. The beer and liquor bottles framing the ramshackle wooden walls (excellent design work by Jason Sherwood) set the tone for this hard drinking environment.
There isn't an actor involved in the various sub plots who doesn't at several points grab a guitar and burst into a rousing melody. Mark Koss's nifty costumes add to the visual pleasures. But for all its fun, Songbird does end sadly. The little bluebird that Dean finds is after all an omen — and Kimmel and Prichard's big-little musical exists courtesy of Chekhov's iconic bigger bird.