Lady Gaga has her "little monsters," Gloria Steinem has the big F feminists and Ruth Bader Ginsburg has the Notorious RBGers. But only Jill Conner Browne has The Sweet Potato Queens. Not only does she have them, she is also one of them.
The SPQs, as we’ll call them, are a women’s organization (with 6,200 chapters in 37 countries) founded and presided over by Browne. But make no mistake; this is no Ms. magazine kind of outfit. The SPQs mix over the top lurid drag queen costuming with southern fried humor that simultaneously bashes men and promotes unapologetic female self-esteem in an effort to empower mostly middle aged/middle class women. Why settle for a introspective midlife when you can put on a humongous ginger-colored wig, an exorbitantly pink and green sequined outfit, make fun of men while declaring yourself the best thing since sliced bread, participate in a parade (yup they have one) and ravenously read one of Browne’s many advice-filled bestselling Sweet Potato Queen books with titles like Fat is the New 30 and The Sweet Potato Queens Field Guide to Men?
If it sounds like I have some issues with the organization, just wait till we get to the musical based on it all. The Sweet Potato Queens, with music by early '80s pop star Melissa Manchester, lyrics by Sharon Vaughan and book by Rupert Holmes is getting its world premiere at TUTS Underground. So hold onto your feather boas and rhinestone tiaras Sweet Potato Queens, this is an effort that needs to be peeled.
The almost two-hour, two-act musical is actually three elements squished into one in an effort to cobble together some semblance of a story. What happens instead is a mishmash of ideas, styles and unnecessary moments that in turn perplexes bores and insults.
Present day Queen Jill (a charisma-less Susan Koozun affecting heavy southern drawl) in full SPQ regalia and her band of Sweet Potato Queen friends/clones (Kerissa Arrington, Julia Krohn and Christine Stroup with strong voices all) open up the musical with several numbers attempting to explain who and what the SPQs are. For those in the audience already indoctrinated (and for us critics who did our research in advance) it’s a good thing we already know. Not one of the lackluster songs clue us in as to why we’re watching these ridiculous looking women boast about how fabulous they are (It’s Me) or how hard it is to be accepted as an SQP (SPQ-TIFUL). It isn’t until the musical trots out an inexplicable reporter onstage (just one of the endless hackneyed dramaturgical tropes this show relies on) to interview Queen Jill about her organization that we have any idea what the hell is going on.
Which brings us to element two. A rewind to a time when Queen Jill was just plain out of work Jill (Kathryn Porterfield with an incredible set of pipes), saddled with a cheating deadbeat husband (Adam Gibbs), a baby and living with her parents (Theresa Nelson and Kevin Cooney) in a Jackson, Mississippi trailer park. While Porterfield’s vocal command certainly lights up Ryan Mcgettigan’s nifty revolving set that allows the action to flow inside and out in front of the trailer, the ensuing numbers Manchester and Vaughan offer up range from cheap Rosanne Cash knockoffs (Southern Side of Jackson) to outdated '80s sounding B-sides (We Had Some Good Times and Do What Makes Your Heart Sing).
But at least we’re watching a story arc at this point. One where Jackson Jill, fed up with her life, seeks out the company of three other disenchanted women (one food obsessed, one sex obsessed and a woman under the thumb of her husband all amusingly all named Tammy) and a gay waiter George (Dylan Goodwin) who are destined to become her first SPQ disciples. Or at least we think we’re watching an uninterrupted story unfold. But wait; hold onto your sequins for the third element. Rather than trust that the story can unfold organically, Holmes keeps injecting the older Jill (costumeless in these instances) in monologue fashion to comment on herself as a younger woman, make non sequitur jokes about things like why men should never be allowed to have plastic surgery (It means they aren’t paying enough attention to us) and fill in weak plot points such as why she married Tyler in the first place. Of course she does so with ballsy sass as is her style and the fans in the audience laugh on cue not caring one whit about the cheap end run around the actual drama or the oddly injected pseudo stand-up routine that has nothing to do with the story at all.
Amidst the derivative music, schizophrenic storytelling and uninspired direction by Bruce Lumpkin and Marley Wisnoski that has the Tammys and Jackson Jill stuck sitting in place during most of their songs, there are two quite outstanding numbers in the first act that grab attention. Clueless as to why her daughter Jill would leave her decent-paying job in order to find something more fulfilling, Nelson bangs out the uniquely talk-singing and wonderfully clever, Sears, a funny nagging/begging appeal for Jill to reconsider her career decision.
Breaking away from the tiresome and obvious men, sex and food one-liners Jackson Jill and the Tammy’s engage in, Flower Tammy (the one with the overbearing husband) is gifted with a terrifically poignant musical moment. Newly minted as an Avon girl at the conclusion of Act One, Flower Tammy (Julia Krohn) sings about the best cosmetics to cover up your flaws (Flowers in the Snow) while inadvertently/subtly alluding to the audience that her husband is abusing her. Here the sweet melody mixed with stammers of how to cover bruises hidden in an otherwise cheery shilling of makeup makes for a surprisingly smart and affecting moment.
It’s a moment to hold onto because the rest of the show is one hot mess. Again we get the Queens arriving onstage with barely choreographed numbers that have nothing to do with the story. Worse still, while their "Funeral Flood" song describing how to kill your man with fattening food is obviously a bit lifted from one of Browne’s books, it plays not like a funny female-empowered number (such as Chicago’s Cell Block Tango) but as spiteful, angry and off-putting. I’ll admit that the SPQs' brand of humor is not for me, but taste aside, I just don’t understand how hating/using men as explained in the song "Five" (apparently you only need five men in your life, one to talk to, one to dance with, one fix things for you, one to have sex with and one to do your bidding) really adds to these women’s fulfillment beyond expressing their anger.
But back to the musical, which at this point has dragged on with superfluous numbers, injected narrations and thin snapshot scenes poorly explaining how Jackson Jill actually became Queen Jill, formed the SPQs and built it into the empire it is today. It’s a shallow narrative being mined here and my guess is that if you’ve never heard of the SPQs you’ll leave the theater still confused about what an SPQ is and scratching your head at the popularity of the whole darn thing.
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Preaching to the converted. Navel-gazing. Knowing your audience. All of these notions could be used to describe the motivation for the Sweet Potato Queens musical. Those who buy into Jill’s Kool-Aid will no doubt hoot and holler at the familiar quips, not be concerned with the mostly forgettable musical numbers and perhaps even like getting the loosely based, thinly drawn history of how it all came to be.
For the rest of us, this is one tuber that we can happily leave in the ground.
The Sweet Potato Queens continues through March 27, The Hobby Center for Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at tutsunderground.com or by phone at 713-558-8887. $25 - $49.