Three generations of strong Southern women feud and reconcile against the backdrop of changing dynamics within the country music industry in “Play it By Heart,” a promising new musical still navigating its path as evidenced in its Human Race Theatre Company regional premiere at the Loft Theatre.
In this sweet but predictable tale, the legendary Jeannine Jasper (Trisha Rapier), a Grammy and Country Music Association winner with a spot in the Grand Ole Opry on the horizon, yearns for retirement to the chagrin of her overbearing, ruthless stage mom Naomi (Sharva Maynard). As mother and daughter wrangle, Jeannine’s irritated, spoiled younger sister Jamie Lynn (Kathryn Boswell) enters the equation with furious bitterness toward Jeannine. Even so, testy situations for the Jaspers stretch beyond the country charts when Billy Tucker (Paul Blankenship), Jeannine’s former flame, suddenly arrives after 20 years to rekindle their chemistry and plan for the future. Billy’s presence quickly releases painful memories which force Jeannine and Naomi to face the music they’ve desperately tried to silence.
Librettist Brian Yorkey (a Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner for “Next to Normal”) conceives an effective dysfunctional family foundation and has a keen perspective for the marketing-driven essence of current country music (especially Jamie Lynn’s ascension as the latest country-pop sensation), but he peculiarly inserts familiar contrivances. In fact, a major plot twist didn’t produce any noticeable gasps from the audience at the performance attended perhaps because it was already a memorable jaw-dropper in the hands of Lisa Kudrow last season on ABC’s “Scandal.” It also isn’t clear what happened to the show’s villain in Act 2 following a dramatic incident involving Jeannine’s father Buck (Scott Stoney), and there should be less focus on Billy in Act 1 which can be replaced by more meaningful moments for the Jasper women to explore their complex emotions. Granted, one of the best musical numbers from the tuneful composing team of David Spangler, Jerry Taylor and R.T. Robinson is the feisty “Sorry!” featuring the ladies in a heated squabble at the kitchen table, but more attention should be paid. Considering the material already contains mild shades of “Gypsy,” I’d specifically like to see Naomi completely release the obvious demons within her inner Momma Rose by singing a substantial, no-holds-barred 11 o’clock number on par with “Rose’s Turn.” And, yes, this can be done with the elimination of Act 2’s unnecessary, testosterone-driven “Good Ol’ Boys.”
Nevertheless, director Kevin Moore skillfully establishes an authentic tone and brisk pacing in addition to assembling an appealing cast. Rapier, a pleasant vocalist seen last season in the Human Race’s production of “Next to Normal,” is an engaging center bringing credence to Jeannine’s frustration with familial concerns and past mistakes. The outstanding, tough-as-nails Maynard intimidates to the hilt as Naomi tries to keep her family together while elements of her world, particularly her financial security, threaten to dissipate. The radiant Boswell is effortlessly vivacious but grows fittingly intuitive as Jamie Lynn comprehends the weight of her existence. Stoney, fortunate to sing the beautiful title number, supplies gentle authority and tenderness. The charming George Psomas adds flavorful comic relief as Naji Habib, a fish-out-of-water music executive from Dubai overseeing Jeannine and Jamie Lynn’s recording ventures. Blankenship could loosen up a bit but his shy demeanor nicely contrasts the extroverted Jaspers. J.J. Tiemeyer schemes and deceives with sharp intensity as Robbie Wilkins, Jeannine’s tour manager. Tim Lile is wonderfully good-natured as Lyle Mount, Jeannine’s former manager. Christine Brunner and Cooper Taggard complete the cast very well in various roles. Brunner is a hoot as perky reporter Debbie Dean who has a funny breakdown late in Act 2. Taggard enjoyably partners with Boswell for “Do I?,” the catchy Act 2 opener choreographed by Megan Wean Sears with playful sexiness.
In addition to Sears, Moore’s first-rate creative team includes scenic designer Adam Koch (adeptly conveying numerous locales from an auditorium and hospital room to a bar and tour bus interior), costumer Christie Peitzmeier (particularly providing lovely gowns for the ladies and appropriate Western gear for the men), lighting designer John Rensel, sound designer Brian Retterer, and music director Nils-Petter Ankarblom who leads an excellently well-balanced onstage band that never feels intrusive.
At a time when country music is evolving beyond its roots and traditional demographics (Florida Georgia Line’s collaborative “Cruise” with Nelly marked a huge cultural shift), “Play it By Heart” runs the risk of feeling out of step in terms of reaching a broader, diverse audience. Still, this project warmly embraces the power of forgiveness and the importance of family, feel-good components likely to secure interest elsewhere following rewrites.
“Play it By Heart” continues through July 6 at the Loft Theatre of the Metropolitan Arts Center, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are (Through June 29): Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m.; Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.; and (July 1-6): Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday evenings at 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Act One: 75 minutes; Act Two: 70 minutes. Tickets are $41-$48 (prices vary depending on performance date and discounts are also available). For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com or humanracetheatre.org.