The Dallas Theater Center has kicked off its season with two simultaneous but very different shows at the Wyly Theatre — one a world premiere musical, the other a two-hander about Martin Luther King Jr. Both have their pros and cons, but maybe not the ones you expected.
First is Moonshine: That Hee-Haw Musical, the much-discussed adaptation of the cornpone variety show from the 1970s. Aside from the name, it bears faint resemblance to its source material. Rather than kitschy Vaudeville set-pieces, it’s a fairly traditional book-musical, about sweet Misty Mae (Rose Hemingway) of Kornfield Kounty who heads off to the Big City (i.e., Tampa) and leaves doting but non-committal beau Bucky Jr. (Ken Clark) behind. But a scheming city slicker (Justin Guarini) woos Misty Mae into visiting her home with the hope of marrying her and mining valuable minerals from under her homestead. All that’s missing is a twirled moustache and damsel on the train tracks.
Predictable, yes, but also surprisingly fun and full of punny but make-you-think-a-bit one liners. (“Misty Mae! If your mamma was alive right now, what would she says?!” “Ummm, let me out of this box?”) The subtle trick of the book, by Robert Horn, is that it doesn’t make fun of the folks it’s making fun of — it’s more Andy Griffin Show than Beverly Hillbillies, brimming with affection for the backwater Brigadoon and the folks who live there. And it’s made all the more enjoyable by a tuneful and sweet score by country stars Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark. There’s gold in them thar hills.
There’s gold, too, in The Mountaintop, playing in the smaller Studio Theatre through Nov. 15. You might expect a play set in the Lorraine Motel on the eve of MLK Jr.’s assassination would be a showcase for the actor playing the most charismatic speaker of the 20th century (here, Hassan El-Amin), but the revelation is newcomer (and SMU student) Tiana Johnson. Johnson, as a chambermaid who visits King hours before his death, is flirtatious, funny, impudent, exciting — you simply cannot take your eyes off her, even for a moment. That’s not exactly good news for El-Amin, whose characterization feels vague. He doesn’t look much like King, and makes almost no effort to create the famous cadences of his speech. In fact, if this weren’t about a real person, the play might seem like some short story by Joyce Carol Oates … at least until the plot goes off the rails into paranormal fantasy that’s less Ebenezer Baptist and more Ebenezer Scrooge. By the time of the “We Didn’t Start the Fire” litany of pop culture since 1969, this Magical Mystery Tour has become a pretentious mess. No matter — it’s worth seeing if only for Johnson’s star-making performance.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 25, 2015.