Some Laughs, but no Saaaalute for Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical
If Moonshine:That Hee Haw Musical is redundant, predictable and precariously sexist, the audience doesn't seem to mind. Taking its title from the long-running variety television show, it's roughly five minutes into the story that the ending becomes clear and five minutes after that when the heroine looks more like a letdown. If musical theater entered into the 21st century with Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, somebody forgot to alert the writers of Moonshine, who've created a story more outdated than Annie Get Your Gun and music that resembles but doesn't stand up to Oklahoma. And yet the musical has a punch-drunk magic that sends audiences out in a state of giddy affection, perhaps especially audiences who feel fondly towards their Southern roots.
It follows a fairly strict musical theater formula. In fact, if you pay attention, you're actually just watching a flatter, twangier version of In the Heights set in Kornfield Kounty instead of in the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights. The story goes like this: Misty Mae is the golden child, who feels destined for something bigger than this one-horse town (insert joke about the town horse here), so she packs up and heads to the big city, Tampa (pause for laughter about just how small that makes Kornfield Kounty), leaving behind her longtime boyfriend Bucky Jr. She experiences immediate success upon her arrival, where she's offered a job as the local weather girl, only to meet a con man who, just a week into their relationship (and maybe a week into her grand adventure?), suggests they go back home to see just how much money her grandpa's land is sitting on. He has gambling debts to pay off and he's willing to court and marry this backwater gal to do it. All of that happens in the first half-hour of a two-and-a-half hour musical. You can bet your bottom dollar the rest of the musical is about unveiling con man Gordy's plot and getting Misty Mae and Bucky Jr. back to the haystack together. Will she stay in Kornfield Kounty and marry Bucky Jr.? Or will she go back to Tampa where she had a job that allowed her to be financially independent and in charge of her own life?
If the plot sounds like something out of a Donald Trump stump speech, it's not for the lack of a clever book. Nearly every line written by Robert Horn is a punchline, and the cast tackles the endless jokes with strong comedic timing, earning laughs for lines that would make great bumper stickers at Cracker Barrel. Director Gary Griffin's hand is evident; he deftly brings the heart, soul and belly laughs to the front of the show. The play's narrators, played by Aaron Ramey and Rob Morrison, could take their act on a comedy circuit, and by the second hour of the show, anytime Kevin Cahoon's character Jr. Jr. walked onstage, the audience cleared their throats anticipating the laughter. Let no one tell you otherwise, the production of Moonshine onstage at DTC is a laugh riot.
It's also true that country music services a musical well, and Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally have written songs that are equal parts Bob Wills and Alan Menken. The catchy main number "Hee Haw," which explains life in Kornfield Kounty, will inspire toe-tapping, and eyes might grow foggy when grandpa (P.J. Benjamin) sings to our heroine (who is played by a luminous Rose Hemingway) about how much he loves her. But these nearly perfect numbers lead to stinkers like the punny, but not funny, "Shucked" that closes the second act. But sitting through the music is worth it to hear Gordy (played by Justin Guarini of American Idol fame) belt out the least twangy song, "Misty," which is reprised three times. And all of this happens on John Lee Beatty's charming set, complete with a red bandana curtain.
Critics have long declared musical theater a dead art form, designed for the blue-haired or the BFA'd. The producers of Moonshine think otherwise, and that might have been wonderful, if what they came up with didn't feel like it was made in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical theater factory. Like the drink it was named for, Moonshine goes for quick, dirty laughs, and though it wouldn't be fair to compare it to something drunk from a jug, it's likely to leave a sour taste in the mouth of a college-educated viewer, especially one who is female or not white. If the message is supposed to be "You can go home again," anyone who grew up in a small town and got out might be quick to ask, "But why would you want to?"
Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical runs through Oct. 11 at the Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St., Dallas. Ticket $18-$99, subject to change, at 214-880-0202 or dallastheatercenter.org.
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