Rousing musical numbers, hilarious social commentary and heavenly harmony make the Wharton Plaza Theatre’s Honky Tonk Angels a joy to behold. The musical comedy runs from Oct. 6 through Oct. 22 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. Presented by BLS Construction and directed by Quinn Wrench, the story follows the adventures of three women looking to restart their lives as singers in Nashville, Tennessee. The production is written by Ted Swindley, who penned “Always…Patsy Cline,” a previous Plaza fan favorite.
As a musical, it’s no surprise that the show is loaded with songs. There are a dozen tunes in Act 1 alone and another 16 in Act II. Many are well-known, such as Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking” and Jeannie Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA.” All are performed by the three actresses who headline the show: Jami Hughes (as Angela), Lauren Machelle (as Sue Ellen) and Lauren Davang Meighen (as Darlene).
Hughes, no stranger to the Plaza, is her usual masterful self, exuding a charisma that can be felt from the theatre’s back row. Her humorous asides, facial expressions, intentionally off-balance dancing, and vocal projections are simply marvelous. Outfitted in Act I in gaudy cowboy boots, a denim shirt embroidered with flowers, and an outdated curly hairdo, Hughes is the quintessential definition of trailer park trash as Angela, her life one deafening disappointment after another.
Machelle is another Plaza veteran who has wowed audiences for years. She sizzles as sexy Sue Ellen, a single working class woman bound by poor relationship choices. Dressed for much of the show in a tight skirt and suggestive blouse, she is hypnotic in line delivery and body movement. Her interaction with the audience is natural and tantalizing, especially for the men. At one point she and Hughes walk off stage to randomly pick a dance partner for a quick two-step in the aisles, much to the pleasure of the audience.
Plaza newcomer Meighen does an admirable job of sharing the stage with two powerhouse performers. She is an attractive and mesmerizing addition, completely convincing as the innocent farm girl looking for a new start in the world of country music. Her opening performance of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is nicely done, with Meighen appearing on stage in braided hair, overalls, and a plaid shirt, a hay bale clutched in her hands. Along with Hughes and Machelle, Meighen tackles a lion’s share of lines, lyrics, and choreography, never dropping a line or missing a beat.
The score is beyond challenging, with the three actresses mixing it up with duets, group performances and solos, all the while mixing in props and intricate choreography. Vocal Director Catherine Genzer and Choreographer Sheila Taylor deserve a lot of credit for taking the songs and transforming them into something dazzling.
Music Director Jeff Davang deserves recognition as well for not only taking charge of the show’s live band but for filling in as lead guitarist. A real highlight of the performance is the inclusion of live musicians, who keep things going with tight rhythms, thumping bass and melodic riffs. In addition to Davang on guitar, band members include Keith Trochta on drums, John Pursel on steel guitar, Riley Henderson on bass and Carolyn Gibson-Baros on piano. The band serves as the perfect accompaniment to the vocalists. One interesting side note, however, was a recurrent reflection of the stage lights off of some of the instruments, particularly the acoustic guitar’s pick guard. It was quite distracting at times, with the shimmery light pattern appearing mysteriously on the theater’s walls and then shining directly into the front rows of the audience.
The production’s songs were overall quite good. Favorites include Hughes’ rendition of “Stand By Your Man,” “Harper Valley PTA” and “Barroom Habits.” Machelle’s best tracks included “9 to 5,” “These Boots are Made for Walking” and “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial,” which featured Egyptian costumes and hysterical dance moves. Meighen was strongest during “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” and a duet with Hughes called “Rocky Top.” Some numbers, however, fell a little flat in both energy and vocals, with “Ode to Billy Joe” and the ensemble “Time for Me to Fly/I’ll Fly Away” feeling a bit forced. The Whitney Houston smash “I Will Always Love You” was also not quite up to par, the song’s difficult register resulting in some sour notes and dissonant harmony from the performers.
Costumes, set pieces and lighting were all spot-on. The set consists of three towering panels that provide the illusion of an office, a laundry room, a barn, and, in Act II, a bar. This creative idea enabled the singers to perform on stage simultaneously while seeming to be in their own unique location. Costume designer was Karis Meek, the lighting board operator was Al Folmar and set designers were Quinn Wrench and Reagan Wrench (who also served as assistant director). Sound designer is Kirk Longhofer. For the most part, the audio was well-balanced. The only noticeable issue was that in a couple of places Machelle’s microphone seemed to be set too low, her vocals lost in the background music.
Others helping with the production included Janice McDonald, Dante Hancock, Carly Kubicek, Roxy Gilley, Russell Kacer, and Sharon Joines.
ABOUT BEN SHARP: Ben Sharp is is Marketing and Communications Coordinator for Wharton County Junior College and spends his days writing press releases, photographing a wide variety of college activities and publishing the college’s e-Newsletter. He previously spent 14 years as a reporter at the Wharton Journal-Spectator and also operated a photography business. He holds an English degree from the University of Houston. He lives in Wharton with his wife, Kristen, and their three kids, Madalyn, Andrew and Matthew.