The Miss Firecracker Contest at Company OnStage: Not To Be Missed

The set-up: Southern charm, inventive acting and skilled direction blend into an explosive package in The Miss Firecracker Contest at Company OnStage. Preparations for the annual beauty contest take over a hugely dysfunctional family in Act One, while Act Two takes us backstage at the exciting event itself.

The execution: Despite not being a raving beauty and past the first blush of youth, Carnelle (Melanie Martin) has her Southern heart set on entering the contest which her blonde cousin had won at the age of 18, and her determination includes dying her hair to match her costume. The show opens with her practicing her "routine", which has the comic gravity of patriotic genius as she coordinates dance steps with imagined sparklers and roman candles. Martin, aided by her dance experience, succeeds in making us care for Carnelle and has us pulling for her success in the competition.

Stephanie Kelso is a seamstress named Popeye (the reason is very funny) who enters to take measurements for the costume, and gives a strong performance, especially as she falls head-over-heels in love-at-first-sight with Carnelle's cousin Delmount, just released from a stay at a mental institution. Jeffrey Dorman plays Delmount and enriches the role with such riveting body language that he comes close to making the play about himself instead of Carnelle. The variety, intensity, rhythm and charm of his characterization is awesome. In a more minor role, Lidney Molnari plays Mac Sam, a lady-killer with supreme self-confidence despite excessive smoking, drinking and the occasional coughing up of blood. He is so likable that you pray Mac Sam lives for the run of the show. Kristy Morris plays the blonde cousin, and has the looks and skill for an effective portrayal, but is a bit too mannered and a bit too involved with her own performance to tune into the other characters. Amanda Brock plays the event coordinator well.

Since both Dorman and Molnari create triumphant characters with rich body language, credit must be shared with director Anita Samson and assistant director David Samson, who either inspired the characterizations or had the wit to unleash the actors.

The verdict: The goal of playwright Beth Henley was to have fun, and she succeeded in spades in finding the excitement, tension and humor in small-town aspirations. Company OnStage has done well in presenting this comedy and in finding the talented actors to bring it to exuberant life in a production not to be missed.

Through July 30, Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square 713- 726-1219.

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Jim Tommaney