Broadway talents lift Two River’s ‘Songbird’ to honkytonk-angel heights

Felicia Finley and Marrick Smith are mother and son at different crossroads in their music careers in SONGBIRD, the musical now on stage at Red Bank’s Two River Theater. (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Published in the Asbury Park Press, June 22 2018

It’s probably not going out too far on a limb to state that Songbird, the musical now onstage at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, is the finest transposition of Anton Chekhov’s 19th century drama The Seagull to the honkytonks of present-day Nashville that you’ll see this season. In fact, the only real surprise here derives from just how seamlessly the Russian master’s group-portrait study of artistic passions, romantic obsessions, and trampled dreams manages to translate when given a guitar to twang the heartstrings, and a beer to catch the tears.   

You need not have ever seen or studied The Seagull to find fellowship with any of the interlocking tales of heartbreak at the core of Michael Kimmel’s adaptation — and you need not even especially love country music to connect with Lauren Pritchard’s smart score; a jukebox of styles that range from old-timey Opry and family-heirloom blues to alt-Americana and corporate contemporary, and that show their composer as skilled enough to create a perfect pastiche of a “needs-work” song, or even the kind of huge money-making hit that’s nonetheless a bit of an embarrassment to its creator.

Preserving the mother-child conflict at the troubled heart of the classic drama  (think of it as “fillet of Seagull”), and featuring a few of the cast members from the show’s critically acclaimed 2015 Off Broadway debut, Songbird is framed as a homecoming tale in which veteran country music superstar Tammy Tripp makes a grand return to the neighborhood bar on whose postage-stamp stage she got her start — in the process re-inserting herself into the lives of the grown-up son, relatives and faithful friends to whom she’s been little more than a voice on the radio in recent years. While the larger-than-life entertainer is welcomed with open arms by the old gang — and a few of the old rituals prove difficult to maintain after so many years — the invasive species represented by Tammy and her successful songwriter boyfriend Beck threatens to upset the fragile ecosystem of personal relationships and professional dreams, there in that corner bar where time moves too slow, and the trucks outside move way too fast.

With director Gaye Taylor Upchurch wrangling a bigger-than-usual cast of ten actor-singer-musicians — and with a giant cutaway gazebo set design (by Jason Sherwood) containing both the cozy clutter of a well-established neighborhood watering hole, and the dark fringes of an after-hours lakeside hang — this production of Songbird ups the ante in historically handsome Two River fashion; not least of which is the casting of Broadway veteran Felicia Finley (The Wedding Singer, Mamma Mia!) as Tammy, a woman who’s succinctly summed up in the phrase “she’s…a lot.” First glimpsed as a tense but undeniably talented hopeful making her Grand Ole Opry debut with newborn baby in tow, her hometown heroine radiates the confidence and spirit of the eternal life-of-the-party — even as she bemoans her fading status in a fast-changing pop landscape, and compartmentalizes her more troublesome emotions to the point of pushing away the very real needs of her aspiring songwriter son Dean. Exuding just the perfect degree of star quality, Finley quickly takes ownership of the part; assuming her rightful place at the center of the universe in her solo spots, and kicking things into high gear through her triple-threat skills as actor, singer, and boot-scuffing dancer (quadruple, if we consider her fall-back career option as a passionate player of the spoons).

That said, Tammy is but one pivotal part of an ensemble scenario — and for the engagement that opened officially on June 15, the Two River team has stocked this bar with a top-shelf level of juice, including Broadway cast veterans of Fun Home, Once, Rent, Hair, Billy Elliott, Dirty Blonde and Moon Over Buffalo, among many others. Eric William Morris, who helped introduce the worldwide phenomenon that is Be More Chill on the Two River stage (and who moves on from here to play no less a role than impresario Carl Denham in Broadway’s ambitious King Kong) returns to Red Bank in a multi-faceted turn as the disruptive and possibly dishonest Beck, while screen actress Kelly Karbacz (Orange is the New Black, Get Smart) seizes the opportunity to stretch the musical muscles that she put to use in the NYC Opera presentation of Sound of Music. 

In the roles of Dean and his hometown hearthrob-creative muse Mia, Marrick Smith and Ephie Aardema come to the fore in some of the show’s most emotionally devastating moments — while the most pleasant surprise is Off Broadway returnee Kacie Sheik, whose dynamite vocal skills transform the somewhat contrary character of black-clad barmaid Missy into the equal of any small-town Tammy who ever brought a touch of Music Row magic to a karaoke bar mic.

Continuing an interesting trend that took hold with director John Doyle’s early-oughties stagings of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company, all of the actors provide their own instrumental accompaniment on stage, from guitars and piano to tambourine and “egg shaker.” Far from a gimmick, the choice is a natural fit for a show in which the various characters are the sort of folks who tend to keep their instruments handy in case of impromptu singalong jam. It’s also the right approach in an environment where some of the inhabitants have difficulty expressing themselves in any other way —and, with maybe one or two exceptions, the compositions of songwriter Pritchard (an original cast member of Spring Awakening in her own right, and an accomplished pop singer who records under the name LOLO) are delivered as songs being shared out-loud with audiences of anywhere from one to nine other people, rather than as extensions of the scripted exchanges or internal monologues. Special kudos, too, to cast members Bob Stillman (a two-time Tony nominated actor-songwriter), Deon’te Goodman, Drew McVety, and Andy Taylor for their respective facility on piano, guitar, violin and cello; an extra-credit set of skills that form the solid foundation of this show’s nimble skips across record-bin subgenres.

It’s all delivered with a decidedly working-class take on the edgy bohemians and countryside-estate crowd of the Chekhov original — and with a plain-spoke (but never condescending) vitality that doesn’t pull any dramatic punches in the show’s considerably darker second act. Songbird continues with a mix of matinee and evening performances through July 1, with ticket info and reservations available by calling the box office at 732-345-1400, or visiting tworivertheater.org.