To anyone who's been willing to listen for more than five seconds at a time over the past year and a half, I've been preaching the Gospel of "Southern Crossroads."
After its March 2012 opening, I ranked it as one of my three favorite shows at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, along with two others that were based on movies and had Broadway runs.
"Crossroads" has all but both of those. The remount of the 1930s-era bluegrass show, which opened last week, only cemented my beliefs at the time that this is a fantastic, entertaining, gotta-see show.
It takes place outside a small-town theater in Virginia that's shuttered in the beginning of the show. The Greene Family Singers, with nothing but change in their pockets, arrive for a performance that night. Unable to get into the theater, they play their show on the sidewalk.
Twenty-nine vintage songs are performed on stage by the fictional family, with a very cohesive sound and tight harmonies. Under the direction of Andrew Crowe, who plays the silent-except-singing brother Ewell, it's never doubted for a moment that these could be musicians who've played together since they were children.
Not only that, each of them play multiple instruments. And we're not talking leisurely strums. It may be old-time bluegrass, but it's played with all the intensity of a rock band.
Plenty of bluegrass and folk song classics are there, such as "Mountain Dew," "Cripple Creek," "Little Brown Jug" and "Shenandoah." But, led by brother Rusk (newcomer Ryan Edward Wise), it ventures into "New Orleans music," ragtime the likes of "Maple Leaf Rag" and "House of the Rising Sun." On fiddle, Crowe begins a very serious classical piece, the chorus of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (aka "Ode to Joy") and steers it into a flat-out frenzy before the number is done.
Brad Hauskins shows his skills, mostly on guitar, newcomer Jody Alan Lee tackles a variety of instruments, with Wise launching into some mean honky-tonk piano (as well as adding a clarinet to the musical mix). And, just as he did last year, Tristan Tapscott performs amazing feats on a makeshift drum set.
As a singer and actress, Rachelle Walljasper provides much of the heart in what's a surprisingly emotional show as the lone sister in the band and the de facto family leader. Wise, as brusk Rusk, gives edge to "Crossroads," as a brother with a checkered past and intimidating demeanor.
Kimberly Steffen steps in as Tapscott's character's love interest, while veteran Quad-City actor Pat Flaherty slips into baggy overalls as the narrator, a hobo passing through town. Lora Adams takes over as the banker's wife, a snooty foil for, eventually, the rest of the cast.
Tom Walljasper is back as the banker, with much more physicality than I remember in the previous version, including some rubber-jointed dancing and a staged faceplant that had the audience worried.
The audience, at least from last weekend's crowd, went over the line at times. Booing and hissing, usually found in an old-fashioned melodrama, has become the norm in the show. There was plenty of that and the cast merrily played along, while playing to the audience as if it was townspeople who had gathered for the impromptu concert. But at least one audience member stomped firmly on several of Tom Walljasper's punchlines. The veteran actor handled it with semi-good nature, but the rest of us weren't there to hear the guy in the audience ruin jokes.
Not only does it sound good, "Southern Crossroads" looks gorgeous as well, thanks to costume designer Gregory Hiatt's choice of some gorgeous double-breasted suits and Susan Holgersson's beautifully delapidated theater exterior.
Curt Wollan directs with a freewheeling spirit, making every move of the family band look both congruent and relaxed. As if his work on "Church Basement Ladies" didn't already convince you, he knows how to please a crowd.
It's comforting to see and hear that this round of "Crossroads" was just as good, if not better, than the previous. For those in doubt, keep an open mind. You're in for great music selected and arranged by Steve Przybylski, great dialogue by Warner Crocker and an extremely talented cast.