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The Sweet Potato Queens Premieres at TUTS Underground

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Workshops are where theater folks try to perfect the stories they are about to tell. That's where the material is presented and evaluated. Sometimes it turns out great — as acclaimed playwright Rupert Holmes puts it: "I'm going to inherit three laughs I never knew I had."

And sometimes something you thought was terrific falls flat. Or as Sharon Vaughn (Oscar nominee and writer of several No. 1 songs) puts it: "You have to throw your children out."

Holmes (Broadway musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, for which he won Tony Awards for Best Book, Best Music and Lyrics and Best Musical) and Vaughn have come together with Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Melissa Manchester to present the world premiere of the musical The Sweet Potato Queens, about to open at TUTS Underground. .

It tells the story of Jill Conner Browne, who decided to lift her spirits by giving herself a title and launching herself into the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Jackson, Mississippi, as the original Sweet Potato Queen — something Manchester calls: “by becoming something quite daft, profound things can happen.” Browne attracted a lot of supporters who also decided to call themselves Sweet Potato Queens and a worldwide phenomenon was born. (Browne also has written several books about it.) 

Browne says she always wanted a musical, and now she’s got one.  Last year TUTS Underground held a staged reading, followed by another, more private reading in November, and changes followed.

Since last year, the Jill Conner Browne character has been split into older and younger versions of herself, which also enables them to use her as a narrator, Holmes says. Some songs were cut, new ones added and song order has been changed as well, Manchester says, which meant Vaughn had to rewrite some content.

Despite the Southern setting, the trio insists the story has universal appeal. “It’s a very spirited but poignant message. It’s not all tequila and rhinestones at all,” Vaughn says. “It’s a lot of heart and a lot of courage."

Performances of The Sweet Potato Queens are scheduled through March 27 at ” 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby.  For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $25 to $49.

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