By Quinn Rigg
From a grandmother’s favorite soup recipe to the wiggling tail of a dog, love comes in many forms and faces. Love manifests itself in fading sunsets, laughing children, eyes lit by starlight, and at 3741 N. Elston Avenue, rousing ditties at the pub.
New American Folk Theatre presents an exploration of love’s many facets with My Life is a Country Song, written by Anthony Whitaker.
The musical follows Donna, a newly-single woman carving her own way in the world after an abusive marriage. Backed up by a country band at the bar, Donna (played by Kelly Combs) takes the audience through the construction of her support system, the house she calls home, and her struggle with attachment to the man who hurt her.
New American Folk Theatre crafts a welcoming and lively atmosphere in the second-floor walk-up bar of Chief O’Neill’s Pub and Restaurant. This musical does not begin at the top of the show, but with an opening set list performed by the show’s band, led by music director Joey Harbert, placing the audience in the mindframe of a casual and diverting night of sad country songs and rural party anthems. The location is apt and the ambience is appropriately festive.
Direction by Sarah Gise is further attuned to an inviting night of entertainment. Gise amplifies this invitation through the dramatic device of the microphone. Actors come to the downstage mic stand to sing what’s in their hearts; however, this directorial convention often disconnects the music from the drama. When all musical moments have to happen in front of the audience, the music and play are made separate is space — disparate parts of the same experience. After experiencing moments of tender support or violent abuse, the actors must drop the circumstance of the scene in order to walk to the front of the bar to sing another part of the country set list.
The accommodations of the space are meager in nature, and navigating the unique sightlines presents a particular challenge. Despite the initial restrictions and directorial challenges of the space, New American Folk Theatre’s production team is clever and scrappy enough to take on the task.
David Philyaw ingeniously crafts a home-brewed lighting rig within the unorthodox space. Cleverly-placed lights evoke the ambience of a country concert, a quiet night at the barbecue, and more.
Music direction by Joey Harbert crackles with heart and bounding with energy, filling the room with tuneful delight. Harbert’s hands blaze on the keys along with the pulsing bass of Noah Nichols and the sparkling guitar of Isabella Snow. The actor-musicianship of this piece adds a home-grown flare to this work; while they work with little, this ensemble builds their world through rousing drinking songs and instrumental accompaniment. While the actor-musicianship does not make the instruments a didactic part of the storytelling, the filled-out orchestration sparks an inherent connection between actor and music.
However, the script lacks the same scrappy panache of the score. Without the rabble-rousing energy of the music, this Country Song meanders. Much of the dialogue inefficiently wanders without pushing the plot forward — time spent waiting for another drinking song. That is not to say that the book of this musical is lacking in heart. Provided this well-intentioned energy were refocused into a more direct and streamlined plot, My Life is a Country Song could be the floor-slamming romp through the intricacies and complications of rural life that it so longs to be.
New American Folk Theatre endeavors to manifest an entertaining Americana experience in a thrillingly unorthodox space. My Life is a Country Song thrives on its simple yet lively tunes, yet it suffers from the overindulgent saccharine of its script. Tight quarters of the space lead to interconnectivity between audience and cast, as it gives rise to interesting solutions from a creative production team; although, the direction of the piece exists in argument with the parameters of the architecture.
It’s clear that New American Folk Theatre has a lot of love to give to its material and its audiences. Once that heart is workshopped into the script and restructured within the space, My Life is a Country Song could be the heartwarming actor-musician romp to warm the cooling season.
New American Folk Theatre presents “My Life is a Country Song” through November 21 at Chief O’Neill’s Pub and Restaurant, 3471 N Elston Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets may be found here.