Meal Ticket was a British Country-and-Western Band. You read that right. Jones says there’s a couple of them in the Merry Olde, and that they have quite a following. One member of that following was a fella named Roger Penycate, who heard Meal Ticket in London and was impressed by Country’s ability to tell a story in a song. Why, that would work great in a musical, Penycate thought, and years later, after he had moved to the States and while he was helping to produce a show at the Black Box in Indian Head, Maryland, he decided to write a story to go along with some Meal Ticket songs. He sent his draft to Jones, whom he had never met personally. Jones liked the concept, if not the actual story, and he massaged Penycate’s draft and added a few new songs. They communicated by e-mail for years (they met in person for the first time two weeks ago), and Jones gradually weaned Penycate – whose gifts run to the production end – from his book-writing responsibilities. The result – stripped down in this production to accommodate limits of the venue and cast – is on display at the Black Box now, where it will run until September 20.
Watching a work in progress is a little like drinking Tennessee sipping whiskey before it has properly aged. There is the occasional pleasant jolt, but the overall experience is uneven. So it is with Laughing Daughter. The principal problem is the book, which lacks any discernable conflict whatsoever. Fans of Musical of Musicals (the Musical!), now in glorious reprise at MetroStage, know the plot requirements of all musicals:
Villain (a disgusting old man. Always.): You must pay the rent!
Victim (a comely young woman. Always.): But I can’t pay the rent!
Villain: You must pay the rent!
Hero (a powerful, but virtuous, young man. Always.): I’ll pay the rent.
Laughing Daughter is more like
Villain: You must pay the rent!
Victim: But I can’t pay the rent!
Villain: O.K. Wanna sing a song?
Little Bird (K.J. Jacks) longs to leave the reservation, where she helps her father, Storm Heart (Jeff Barehand) sell trinkets to drooling and ignorant tourists. She wants to become a singing and songwriting star, instead. With the blessing of her father and of her heartbroken boyfriend, Sleeping Raven (Adam Curtis), she catches a bus into some unnamed town, where she is, shall we say, less than an immediate sensation. In the meantime, Jolene (Crystal Mosser) is a successful businesswoman and investment whiz whose only ambition is to hook up with bad-boy singer/songwriter Junior Johnson (Draper Carter). She has apparently followed Junior for years, but Junior barely acknowledges her existence. And back at the reservation, Storm Heart pines for the wife who left him years ago, Shell Flower (Natalie Proctor, also known as Standingontherock.)
This all has the potential for conflict, but none of it is realized in a credible way. Sleeping Raven longs for his missing girlfriend, who never calls him – but we find out that Sleeping Raven’s real problem is that he lost his cell phone. Sleeping Raven, who is apparently not the brightest bird in the flock, is unable to put cause and effect together, and takes to the bottle in response. Storm Heart asks Shell Flower to return to the reservation to help him straighten out Sleeping Raven, and she does. Bang! The Heart-Flower romance is rekindled. In town, Jolene hits pay dirt the first time she actually meets Junior. He falls for her like – oh, let’s just say it; it’s Country and cliché’s are fine – like a ton of bricks. Later, walking hand-in-hand, they run across Little Bird, whose bad day has reached its nadir when two thugs (Pete Farnham and Mike Margelos) steal her guitar. Little Bird is singing, morosely and a cappella, and Junior and Jolene decide on the spot to take her under their wing. At the local honky-tonk, while Junior is singing Little Bird’s songs, a record producer (Farnham) discovers him and reveals that the great Country-and-Western star Bubbalou Burns (Tom Cauler) has recorded one of Junior’s songs, and it’s now #3 in the country. Junior, who apparently never listens to the radio, is astonished. Of course, in real life, the only characters after that would have “Esq.” after their names.
This undercooked plot makes Laughing Daughter essentially a delivery vehicle for Meal Ticket songs, and for the performances. The songs – some of which are placed a little awkwardly – are good, and sometimes terrific. The best of them is “Man from Mexico” (it has nothing to do with the plot), in which Mosser and Carter harmonize beautifully while singing to Junior’s fans. The reprise of “Out of the Blue”, in which Storm Heart and Shell Flower reconcile their differences and renew their love, is also beautifully written and beautifully sung. I also liked the eleven o’clock song, “Buddy”, which is the piece Bubbalou ripped off from Junior. At the end of the play, Bubbalou and Junior perform it together, with the rest of the cast as chorus, and it’s nice.
If this show was nothing more than an opportunity to hear Mosser sing Meal Ticket songs, it would be well worth the $15 price of admission. The operatic Mosser appears to have about a four-octave range, and every note she hits is like a ringtone from heaven. What’s more, she invests her character with good humor and pluck, which – if you’d been watching Musical of Musicals (the Musical!), you’d know this – is de rigueur for musicals.
The rest of the performers – well, they need some work. Barehand, whose work has been in television, has a beautiful true tenor, but his voice is underpowered, even for the tiny Black Box. Standingontherock, a historical dancer and educator, has apparently not acted before. She has a beautiful voice but when she is not singing she does not use the actor’s toolbox, and thus does not vary her facial expression or come in on her lines as though delivering them spontaneously. Jacks’ voice is adequate, but her character comes off as whiny rather than hopeful and optimistic, as it should. I did not for a minute buy her romance with Curtis as Sleeping Raven. Carter, regrettably, is both fumblemouthed as an actor and (in several instances) off-key when singing. The show as a whole is slowly paced, with much standing around, and there are parts of the second Act which seem alarmingly underrehearsed. This may have been a product of the surgery done to the script during the rehearsal process.
The production is blessed with a very tight, very fine four-person orchestra. The keyboard work of Musical Director Jim Watson and Marcia McIntyre’s violin are particularly swell.
Were this a $70 ticket at Arena or Signature, I’d advise you to wait for its next production. But the $15 ticket price is only thirty-one cents more than two “big” pizza sandwiches with extra cheese, bacon and pepperoni, plus a ginger ale, at the Potbelly’s. (Don’t ask me how I know this.) It’s fun to go to a theater in the middle of the countryside and watch a musical grow up, and if you’ve got a sawbuck or two lying around, there are worse ways to spend it.
By way of full disclosure, I must tell you that director Bill Graves and I acted together in several productions, and that I’ve worked with other members of this cast. This has not affected the objectivity of my review.
Music by Rick Jones
Lyrics by Rick Jones, James D. Watson and David Pierce, with additional lyrics by Bill Graves
Book by Jones, in collaboration with Roger Penycate
Directed by Bill Graves
Musical Direction by James Watson
Produced by Rothell Enterprises, Inc, at the Black Box Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.