If you've spent any time following the Fringe Festival circuit in North America, you're probably already aware of the marvel that is the multi-talented Chase Padgett. He acts, he sings, he plays guitar, he writes and he's produced two award-winning solo Fringe shows over the last four years. His first hit in 2011, 6 Guitars, put Padgett onstage with only a guitar and speaker in order to portray six different characters, each a musician of a different genre talking about and playing their style of music.
The wonderfully comedic effect instantly made the show a hit with audiences and critics alike and went on to extended runs, sold out shows and many awards along the way. It's never easy to follow up a blockbuster hit, and Padgett stumbled a bit with his next Fringe offering, a two-hander with his brother that failed to connect. But come 2013 at the Calgary Fringe Festival, Padgett was back swinging when he premiered his one man show, Nashville Hurricane, about a young musical prodigy and the dark side of show business. I had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing that inaugural production and was delighted (along with that city's other theater critics) to nominate the show for our annual theater awards.
Since then, Nashville Hurricane has grown from a 60 to a 75 minute show and has toured extensively throughout North America accumulating a dragnet of awards along the way including Best of the Fringe in Orlando Winnipeg, Vancouver and Edmonton.
Nashville Hurricane once again sees Padgett onstage armed with merely a chair and a guitar, only this time it's a far more complex and emotionally charged story he's telling. Billed as a comedy but leaning heavily and successfully on the tragic, the play is narrated chronologically through four very different characters all performed with elastic intensity and self-awareness by Padgett.
The story concerns Henry, a pseudo autistic, painfully shy but frighteningly smart ten year old boy living in white trash poverty with his tattoo-ridden, hard living, expletive spewing, benignly neglectful and unintentionally hilarious single mother. "I'm a good Christian woman, but I will stab a vegan in the face," she says in explaining her full back tattoo of Jesus on a Slim Jim cross. Henry doesn't go to school (fine by his mom as it means less work for her) but through tinkering, observing and reading he manages to teach himself high level math and science. This knowledge both arms him with a multitude of diatribes on the formation of the universe and also allows him to instantly fix his mom's TV with nothing more than gum and tinfoil like a Rain Man MacGyver. But Henry also had an artistic side, or sort of. Self-diagnosed with synesthesia, Henry sees music as shapes and colors to be organized. Since he loves nothing better than working on puzzles, he picks up a guitar and before anyone knows it he's a musical prodigy. One that can only stomach playing in private.
His mother however has other plans. Out of rent money she pushes Henry to compete in a local talent show with a top prize of $300. This is back in the '70s we're told, so not insignificant money. Terrified but not wanting to upset his mom, Henry plays a thrilling version of Amazing Grace (beautifully executed by Padgett), wins the prize and gets taken under the wing of an ethically questionable and emotionally abusive minister turned talent manager, Smokey. Smokey swiftly coins the stage name Nashville Hurricane and begins to mold Henry improbably into the superstar he wants him to be. "God, wants us to prosper", says Smokey and if he gets his way, Henry is his much needed ticket to glory. Rounding out the characters is a troubled but avuncular elderly black blues player on the road touring or more accurately, running away from heartbreaking demons. Padgett introduces all the characters in quick succession right at the top of the show but cleverly doesn't reveal the how they'll all fit together and affect one another until well into the second chorus of the play's refrain.
My feeling watching the play this second time around was similar to the first regardless of the longer running time and minor script changes. Yes the show is terrifically funny in many places thanks to Padgett's comedic writing and performance that lovingly skewers the characters he plays without ever allowing one ounce of cruelty into his portrayals. Henry's chain-smoking flawed but redeemable mother alone is a character that could be easily laughed at affectionately for a full production. Not all the jokes land in this latest version mind you, with some of the comedy (especially the agent's) feeling over rehearsed and stale. Additionally, the reliance on audience interaction early in the show distracts from the experience.
But Padgett's embodiment of Henry is something to behold. In a performance that seems more like being than acting, Padgett, with eye contact avoidance, strained voice and hands that seem as if they are on the verge of running away, creates a young man so uncomfortable in his own skin that it's all we can do not to jump onstage and shield the poor lad from the world. In direct contrast, the old blues singer is a study in shuffled coolness and Smokey the agent is as oily as you can get. There is also no doubting his musical talents. The addition of a blues song midway through the play is a spine-tinglingly superb musical and vocal performance and the final number, while somewhat anticlimactic in its execution given its build up, is quite obviously a tough piece to perform. But it's the emotional octaves that Padgett reaches with the tragic notes of the story that really engages and impresses.
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Much like comedians take to joke to hide the pain, Nashville Hurricane uses humor as a Poppins-esque spoon full of sugar to help us take down the tough themes of loss in the show. Loss of loved ones, loss of freedom, loss of dignity, loss of dreams and loss of who you really are, are all playing out just below the comedy in this show. Padgett lets us see it now and then (sometime en route to a happy conclusion and other times not) and as the tears well up in our eyes, we realize that the lessons learned from these elements of the play are far more satisfying and lasting than the chuckles along the way.
Padgett was still madly learning his lines when I saw this play in 2013. Now, more than 50 performances later, he has polished it into a gem of a show. Nashville Hurricane may be a simple production, but there is nothing simple about how quickly invested we become in this play. Padgett has created some truly unique and authentic characters in this tale of a young man's rise and potential rejection of fame. These are people we react strongly to, root for or against, laugh at and cry for when called upon. Plus we get to tap our toes at some superb guitar picking along the way. If that that isn't worth 75 minutes of your time than I don't know what is.
Nashville Hurricane continues through October 5 at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak. Purchase tickets online at thelabhou.org or at the door. $ 27.50 - $40.