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“Honky Tonk Angels” brings Nashville to Albany at The Rep

With all due deference to “Mama Mia!”, you might call “Honky Tonk Angels” the “Queen of Juke Box Musicals.” It’s a suiting tribute for a musical that honors the female stars of Country Music.

This is a work that uses three women to sing 30 songs that were made famous by female singers and written mostly by female composers. The songs are tied together by a fragile story of how three women randomly meet and form a trio that succeeds in a Nashville club named Honky Tonk Heaven.

The musical, which runs through August 20 at The Rep in downtown Albany, evokes the sounds of strong females like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Tanya Tucker and especially Patsy Cline. This is logical as Ted Swindley, the creator of the show, also wrote “Always … Patsy Cline.”

One of the strongest endorsements of the show is that the three women who eventually form the group Honky Tonk Angels do not do impersonations. Each of the three leads makes every song they sing personal and individual. And can they sing! Each has several outstanding moments and excels in harmonies while performing as duets and trios.

Erin Edelle is Angela, who is running from her double-wide in Texas. She is a no-nonsense, comedic earth mother who is fed up with her husband Bubba. Edelle captures her lovable roughness in two contrary sounding songs. One, a novel interpretation of “Stand by Your Man” and a threatening “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’.” She kills with both and establishes her character as the alpha-female of the group. Edelle is like the corn mash that’s in Tennessee bourbon. It gives it flavor and a little bite.

Darlene, who hails from the Mississippi Delta, is played by Elizabeth Nestlerode who brings a sweet sensitivity to both “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Ode to Billy Joe.” Swindly’s book suggests Billy Joe was Darlene’s boyfriend. It’s a bit of a contrivance, but it and Nestlerode’s interpretation gives the familiar song deeper resonance.

Kara-Tameika Watkins as Sue Ellen is a sexy, citified country girl from L. A., by way of Texas. She is fiercely independent and shows it through her songs, especially “These Boots are Made for Walking.” Speaking of footwear, Watkins bravely performs a number on roller skates.

As good as each is individually, their harmonies are just as good; sometimes better. Their group work at show’s close has the audience clapping their hands and standing on their feet applauding.

Indeed, the performers are so good they make it possible to overlook the simplistic story of three strangers meeting on a bus with each having the same dream. Somewhat problematic is that in a world that seeks 90-minute shows, a performance running almost 2 1/2 hours, with an intermission, is too long. The production would be much better at less than two hours.

Actually “Honky Tonk Angels” is two shows in one. The first act focuses on each woman, her problems and the reason for the bus ride to Nashville. The three meet on the bus and decide to form a trio. The concept elevates the show from a concert to a songfest united by a thin story. Musically, it has several superb solos, but it is also very introspective and slow moving.

The second act has them performing their act as the Angels in the club. This segment is more raucous and upbeat. It includes several production numbers featuring “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial”. It also has the funniest version of “Harper Valley PTA” you will ever see and a sweet, lovely rendition of “Fancy.”

Each actor has a show-stopping moment, but the star of the segment is costume designer Sera Bourgeau who adds visual and comic splendor to the production.

And what would a Honky Tonk bar be like without a house band? From the opening number “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” to the final “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” the 6-piece band under the guidance of Mark Galinovsky on piano is terrific and a critical reason the show is so good.

This is the third time Gary John La Rosa has directed “Honky Tonk Angels” and his understanding of the strengths in the show helps you overcome the show’s problems. Those problems are a story that tries to be inspiring, but isn’t. Some jokes are just too cute and the individual audience interplay, as well as a forced audience sing-a-long, are just awkward.

However, La Rosa understands the purpose of the show is to entertain. That is exactly what he guides his extremely talented cast to accomplish at The Rep.

“Honky Tonk Angels” continues at the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany through August 20. For ticket information and schedule call 518- 346-6204 or go to capitalrep.org

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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