“All my life I’ve
lived a honky tonk song.”
If there was a single lyric that summed up the original Alaskan musical, Out There Honky Tonkin’, that would be the one. The brand new production from Carey Seward (proprietor of Seward’s Follies, a local theater company) and Amanda Bent, is a week into a month-long run at the Empress Theater and it’s lighting up the stage.
Dialogue in the script is a sparse as sobriety in the plot, but the live 4-piece classic honky tonk band and talent-rich cast keep the attention of the audience without much difficulty. The entirety of the soundtrack is comprised of original songs from Alaskan singer/songwriter Riesa Rose Harris, and it’s the music, more than anything, that gives the production legs. Fans of lovestruck, busted-truck, down-on-your-luck, old school country music will feel at home as soon as the strumming starts. Fans of great songs being played with passion by seasoned musicians in an unexpected context will also feel right at home, and who’s not a fan of that?
The setting for the tale is wholly unexpected; the entire theater has been transformed into saloon (think Ivory Jack’s if the bar was also the stage) complete with neon lights, a simulated parking lot, and a full supply of Jameson. As the cast sings and dances their way through the distinctly Alaskan songbook, a few of them also work their way into the crowd serving beer and whiskey to patrons who’ve bought drink tickets on the way in. While the dual roles of actor and server effectively demolish the fourth wall, audience participation is not on the menu. From your place in the theatre seating/saloon tables, you’re a part of the show, but please don’t jump up and twirl your favorite barfly. It’s best to stay an essential but silent extra while the cast executes equally entertaining dance and fight numbers.
In most cases, enjoying a musical requires that you suspend a serious amount of disbelief – rival gangs breaking into dance on the Upper West Side or French police inspectors singing threats at escaped parolees? That’s the genre, for the most part. There is the rare musical, though, in which the story is actually about performers, so bursting into song is significantly less surprising than if say, the singers were also Cats. Out There falls into the latter category, but basing a show on an existing musical catalogue can create a quandary. We’re not surprised when the singers in the story start belting, but the musical numbers struggle to move the plot forward in places. Not every moment in theatre has to be as literal as singing what a character is thinking, but throwing in a modern dance interlude does just that – throws the audience.
Of the dozen-plus members of the cast, Cherie Bowman steals the show by turning in a convincingly intoxicated performance as the hilarious Willie, and Meghan Packer’s omnipresent backing vocals in the role of Audrey (a dog) are a reliably great addition to many songs. Tara Chrisman is unabashed in her portrayal of the audacious Loretta and it’s refreshing to watch her hold nothing back. Her counterpart, Boot (Hank), has the honky tonk voice, walk, and swagger down so well, you’d hardly know they belong to a character.
Unconventional and funny, offbeat and sad, universal in its concepts but exceedingly local in its content – the show is not only worth seeing, it’s probably worth seeing more than once.
- Get there early to get prime seating
- If you’re going to partake in any adult beverages, get drink tickets before the show starts (and remember to have a designated driver)
- The bar on stage will serve you both before and after the show, just walk right up like you do at any honky tonk
- It’s not over when it’s over – the cast and the band keep the party going for quite a spell after the actual show ends, so don’t run out the doors