“Troubadour,” Janece Shaffer’s new play with music by Sugarland’s Kristian Bush, imagines how a crafty Jewish tailor turns a bashful Nashville singer into a rhinestone cowboy.
In the Alliance Theatre world premiere, set in 1951, fictional “King of Country Music” Billy Mason (Radney Foster) is reckoning with his mortality. But as he prepares for his farewell concert, he refuses to relinquish his throne to his handsome son, Joe (Zach Seabaugh), whom he’s always dismissed as a failure.
Meanwhile, Izzy (Andrew Benator), a penniless Russian tailor, and Inez (Sylvie Davidson), a down-and-out Alabama girl with a knack for writing gorgeous songs, see in Joe the potential for stardom.
Together, they stitch up a scheme to put the reluctant star into the spotlight, and to turn his father’s twangy, faith-based style into a sexy honky-tonk sound worthy of all those sequins and glitter. (Or, as the apoplectic Billy says at one point, they want to corrupt country with color.)
Shaffer, an Atlanta playwright with a deep affinity for the Jewish history of the South, found her inspiration for Izzy in the likes of Ukrainian-born Nuta Kotlyarenko (aka Nudie Cohn) and Polish-born Bernard “Rodeo Ben” Lichtenstein, who dressed country legends Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner and Elvis Presley.
Once Shaffer had conceived her story, she enlisted Bush to pen the music.
As it turns out, Bush apparently has a personal connection with the tortured dynamics of family dysfunction, which you can hear in the show’s opener, “Father to the Son.” (An heir to the Bush canned-bean dynasty, he was expected to take over the family business, but instead followed his passion for music.)
Directed by Susan V. Booth, “Troubadour” features a magnificent catalog of songs by Bush. And it shows off the stellar voices of Foster, Seabaugh and Davidson — as well as the musical comedy chops of Rob Lawhon, who plays both the exuberant Nashville radio DJ Pooch Johnson and halting Charlotte radio announcer Jimmie Lollie.
All these performers — as well as Benator and Bethany Anne Lind (as a sultry wannabe star with the stage name Savannah Dushee) — give terrific performances. Davidson can evoke the haunting lyricism of Emmylou Harris (“When I Hear Your Voice”), then with equal aplomb switch gears to exude the flirtatious sexuality of Dolly Parton (“Ice Cream and Lollipops”).
As Billy, a self-righteous man who can hardly mask his seething anti-Semitism, Foster sings in a voice that’s a rich mix of anguish, reverence, fatigue, despair and grace. As Joe, Seabaugh slowly metamorphoses into the man he’s meant to be. But because the actor is so naturally charismatic (his voice sometimes echoes that of Clint Black), his journey from shadows to the bright light of stardom is tricky. He seems more angelic than damaged from the get-go.
Bush’s songs are imbued with a power that cannot be discounted. Shaffer’s story, though quite likable and fun, is harder to pull off.
She tries to tie together at least one too many narrative threads, as it were. While Izzy can make amazing garments for Joe, he can’t give him a voice. So that’s where Inez comes in. This unlikely duo has more or less the same objective, but their converging methods muddy the matter. (I’m still not quite sure what purpose the Savannah character serves, other than to be a surly foil to the sweet Inez and a distraction to the men. And yet, as played by the fantastic Lind, she is delightful.)
This being a story about fashion, you expect the rhinestones to rock. And Lex Liang’s fabulous creations do not disappoint. In fact, they threaten to become characters in their own right: We wait for their arrival from behind closed doors as if they were divas.
Todd Rosenthal’s turntable set revolves to take us from the gas station where Izzy works to radio stations and honky-tonks to the Masons’ living room, among other destinations. It’s nicely realized, and perfectly illuminated by lighting designer Ken Yunker.
On many fronts, Shaffer’s play comes close to succeeding. It is a story of clashing cultures, Freudian struggle, self-doubt, triumph and love. In the end, though, it’s the musical imagery that elevates “Troubadour” and stirs the soul.
Through Feb. 12. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $20-$72. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: A nice look into a little-known slice of Nashville, told with eloquent music.
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