Sue Ellen (Brooke Wilson, left), Angela (Susan 
    Shofner) and Darlene (Deanna Julian) all have hearts 
    of gold, of course.
Sue Ellen (Brooke Wilson, left), Angela (Susan Shofner) and Darlene (Deanna Julian) all have hearts of gold, of course.
Bruce Bennett

The Easy Road

The three women who populate Ted Swindley's surprisingly mediocre Honky Tonk Angels have a dream. Angela, Darlene and Sue Ellen all want to be country singers. Angela's an "honest-to-God housewife" in a Texas double-wide with husband Bubba and six kids; Darlene's a Mississippi delta farm gal without a mama, snapping green beans on the front porch; and Sue Ellen's a twice-divorced secretary in a red-leather mini and knee-high boots who gets pawed over by her lecherous boss in L.A. Stuck in individual ruts, they're desperate to "fly away" to Nashville, the Hollywood of country music.

Watched over by their guardian angels, the three meet on the Greyhound bus trip and decide to form a trio. Without so much as breaking a sweat, they land a job on their first try. Inexplicably, when the gig is over, they head back to their respective homes, except for Darlene, who stays to pursue a solo career that everyone assures her is a sure thing. What kind of guardian angels must Angela and Sue Ellen have? They get a tantalizing taste of the high life and then go back where they came from.

Angels is a "jukebox musical," a compilation of songs -- here, mostly country -- strung loosely together into a show. The skill lies in the weaving. Sometimes these musicals succeed (Masquerade's The Melody Lingers On, a biographical tribute to Irving Berlin, at least had the story of his life to hang his songs onto). But more often than not, these shows (like ABBA's Mama Mia and Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel's Movin' Out) exhibit an almost peculiar randomness of purpose, with songs uncomfortably shoehorned into the drama. No matter how unshapely the musical patchwork, though, this genre is usually successful -- phenomenally so. Prepackaged with tunes everybody knows, these shows have plenty of comfort automatically built in, even if there's not much surprise, innovation, or risk involved.


Honky Tonk Angels

Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123

Through September 18.

Ted Swindley, founding artistic director of Stages and creator of Angels, knows all about jukebox musicals, having created one of the most enduring, profitable ones, Always...Patsy Cline.

Unfortunately, lightning hasn't stuck twice. Angels is strictly second-hand goods. There's no conflict, no roadblocks to the women's success, no compromises to force them down unfamiliar paths: The trio wants to be country singers, and after a few songs describing the unhappy home life of each, they leave and become country singers. End of show. There's not much heart in it, either, except a crepe paper approximation, because the gals are types, not fully developed characters: trailer-trash mama, L.A. wanna-be, sweet country girl. All with hearts of gold, of course. We know all about them before the show even begins, and I tuned out after their introductory songs. You might, too. We watch, uninvolved, and in short order, we're perusing the richly detailed settings by Boris Kaplun and the apt costumes by Kristina Hanssen, which are much more intriguing and character-driven than the characters or their paltry story.

What makes this low-rent show worth the trouble are the three performers, who use their entire arsenal of stage tricks to keep things moving. Susan Shofner (Angela) is the comedic Sophie Tucker of the group, the mama who's the glue that holds them all together. We meet her as she sings "Stand By Your Man," displaying husband Bubba's huge boxer shorts that seem to extend the entire length of her ironing board. In Act II, the sleazy lounge act, Shofner stops the show with "Harper Valley PTA," jiggling across the stage in platform wedgies, animal print mini, padded bosom, and stovepipe hairdo.

Deanna Julian (Darlene), a pig-tailed, bib-overalled "sweet young thang" who could have sashayed straight out of the Dukes of Hazzard remake, gives "Ode to Billy Joe" a fragrant, romantic flavor. Julian has a lovely voice and she finally gets to vamp and strut her stuff in her second-act "Fancy" number, shedding her plain calico for bias-cut red satin and matching boa to wail her woeful, proud story of teen prostitution. She is what Honky Tonk Angels should be.

Brooke Wilson (Sue Ellen) gives her material more oomph than it gives her. She manages to make "These Boots Are Made For Walking" (one example of the second-rate songs used for this revue) really sound good -- and hot. And when all three women blend their voices in the traditional "I'll Fly Away," "Paradise Road," or "Angels Among Us," the musical takes flight.

With Honky Tonk Angels, Swindley has taken the easy road, employing guardian angels in place of drama, taking the sex and heat out of story, and making it palatable for children of all ages. It'll run for years.


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