By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Like so many of the plays produced at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, the new one by Ed Graczyk called The Blue Moon Dancing is just Steel Magnolias by another name. Contemporary Theatre did Steel Magnolias earlier this year. It seems as if they do it every year. They put on a great many shows that feature groups of women sitting around exchanging wisecracks, recipes and advice for achieving better orgasms. When they did Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig last February, it came off as Steel Magnolias with Jewish liberals.
So now it's The Blue Moon Dancing that reinvents the shpiel about a bunch of ladies swapping stories and speaking in bumper-sticker slogans. Graczyk, who lives in Ohio, wrote a similar play before and it's the one for which he's known. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean had a short run on Broadway in 1982 and a subsequent movie adaptation, both directed by Robert Altman and both starring Cher.
That play was set in 1975 in a Woolworth's in fictional McCarthy, Texas. The new one, billed as a "world premiere" at CTD, also takes place in that West Texas town, but at the Blue Moon honky-tonk, where some lonely gals hang out in the daytime, swigging Lone Stars and jabbering at each other about every little ol' thang. The time is supposed to be 2008, though the play, its setting and its characters emit a late 1970s vibe.
The Blue Moon Dancing continues at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas through September 12. Call 214-828-0094.
Bach at Leipzig continues at Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre through September 18. Call 817-877-3040.
As with Steel Magnolias, the central event of The Blue Moon Dancing is a wedding. Young Nadine (the wonderfully quivery Jenae Yerger-Glanton) is excited to be married in the back room of the dance hall to Rodney (Kevin Moore), whom she hasn't known very long. As she hangs crepe paper bells over the pool table and fusses with her borrowed veil, Nadine frets that Rodney's gone missing. He's late for the nuptials and there's a big thunderstorm blowing. (Nice rain effects by set designer Rodney Dobbs and sound designer Richard Frohlich.)
Keeping Nadine company are the back room regulars. There's tough-as-whang-leather waitress Bernice (Nancy Sherrard), who says things like "Rug? He lied like wall-to-wall carpeting," and "That woman's got hair bigger than most area codes." Well-off widow Roselle (Carolyn Wickwire) waltzes with the ghost of her dead husband and earns the biggest laugh of the night with the line: "I hadn't prayed so hard since Baby Jessica was stuck in that well in Midland."
If there's a leading role it's Constance, the "Meryl Streep of West Texas" and McCarthy's lone community theater star. She's played by Cindee Mayfield, one of Dallas' best professional actresses and one blessed with the talent of making unhappy characters terribly funny. Middle-aged and stuck in a sucky marriage—"Who ever thought 'till death do us part' would take so long?"—tragic Constance fantasizes about moving to Dallas and starring as Martha in a real production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (As someone pointed out on opening night, Mayfield is playing a character whose goal is essentially to become Cindee Mayfield.) Constance digs pills out of her handbag and washes them down with hard liquor, wilting into the table as a sad but sarcastic drunk. "I'm coming, Moscow, I'm coming!" she says, waving her glass in the air. It's a reference to Chekhov's Three Sisters, which, come to think of it, is Steel Magnolias with vodka and without big hair.
Many little storms erupt in The Blue Moon Dancing, directed at CTD by Cheryl Denson and lovingly performed by its cast, but none of them amount to much. A blowsy redhead named Leona (Catherine Wall, unexpectedly brilliant as a last-minute replacement for an ailing Sue Loncar) breezes in, decked out in a bedazzled T-shirt and leopard-print miniskirt, breezes out to have a fling with an Elvis impersonator and breezes back to assure everyone she didn't commit adultery after all. An aspiring country singer, Pearl Jean (Lee Jamison Wadley, rocking short-shorts and cowboy boots), mostly stands by the pay phone waiting for the call that will send her on the road to stardom in her own tour bus. The minister/mechanic (Nye Cooper) hired to perform Nadine's wedding gets caught peeping through a bullet hole into the ladies' bathroom.
Intent on tying up every last loose end, Graczyk lets the action go 40 minutes too long, with five or six possible endings piling up. It really would have been fine to let the jilted bride wander dejectedly into the pouring rain, but the playwright brings her back, dries her off and has her meet a new, nicer man (Shane Beeson as a Frito-Lay truck driver).
In Steel Magnolias, the dying daughter, Shelby, utters one of writer Robert Harling's sappiest bon mots when she says "I'd rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special." The Blue Moon Dancing offers theatergoers two and a half hours of characters who are destined for the latter.
There are no women in Itamar Moses' high-flown comedy Bach at Leipzig, now zipping merrily over the little stage at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre. The seven men in the play are the finest church organists in Germany in June of 1722. They've converged at a cathedral to audition for the post of head organist, a high-paying job that confers fame and power.
Fasch (Steven Pounders) is the liberal who wants to take German music in new directions. Lenck (Andy Baldwin) is a sly scoundrel with gambling debts to pay off. Sexy young Steindorff (Stephen Levall) comes from an aristocratic family feuding with the residents of the town that produced Kaufmann (Chris Hauge), who's also trying for the organist job. Serving as the barrier to all upstarts is Schott (David H.M. Lambert), a Leipzig organ master trying to leapfrog over all outsiders. Gliding past everyone without a word is the stately Telemann (Art Peden), revered and feared. And what about this kid named Bach? Anybody heard him play yet? (The characters and the audition are based on real events, though Moses' depiction of everything in the play is pure invention.)
Like the tribemates on Survivor, the musicians form alliances, backstab, bribe and try to outwit and outplay each other. In the form of a conversational fugue, Bach at Leipzig slows down its frenzied farce only for digressions into the dogma of Lutheran religion and a deconstruction of drama itself, with commentary on the laziness of spilling exposition by having characters speak directly to the audience—something this play does constantly and to amusing effect.
Director Robin Armstrong has choreographed witty sword fights and a graceful semi-ballet into the staging as the men whirl around in their exquisite brocade greatcoats (designed and sewn by Armstrong). With superb performances by all, and an especially sharp turn by Baldwin, Bach at Leipzig only gets funnier as the plot lightens.