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February 26, 2008

‘Blue Plate Special’ offers non-stop kitsch cabaret

(Directed by Sharon Murray Harrah. An Alley Theater production. Continues through March 16 at City Block, 133 W. Liberty St. For tickets or more info, call 589-3866.)A blue plate special is a low-priced daily dinner special, a main course with all the fixin’s, a daily combo, a square for two bits. Despite its vanished tradition, this enduring American colloquial expression lives on as the new Alley Theater opens its first season with “Blue Plate Special.” Once housed on Baxter Avenue, the Alley begins new life at City Block, formerly O’Malley’s Corner, with a production tailor-made for its new location. While it may not be fit for the followers of Wonder Showzen’s irreverent “Horse Apples,” fans of “Hee Haw” and cornpone humor in general will enjoy “Blue Plate Special,” a country-western-flavored musical comedy set in Della’s Diner in the rural Tennessee mountains. But it isn’t really a diner — it’s actually the set of a soap opera.Music is by Harris Wheeler, with lyrics by Mary L. Fisher and a book by Tom Edwards. The script has meaty parts, and the production features three good performers. Everyone sings remarkably well, but comic opportunities are missed. The line about Connie’s hit song “Jesus Signed My Dance Card” is hilarious but exemplary of the many occasions that could be funnier with more thought and better timing. The final song is misplaced and anti-climactic, and both acts go on too long.The story hinges on the experiences of three women: Della (Laura Obenauf) has escaped a dark past and settled on her very own mountain. Her beautiful daughter Ramona (Jill Higginbotham), who’s been gone trying to make it as a country music singer, comes home after a disastrous appearance on the Johnny Carson Show. And Connie Sue Day (Kelley Brady) is back after a long decline from country music stardom and time behind bars. Higginbotham is a strong, funny and thoughtful performer, one of the best in the show.The male characters give two of the best performances. Ramona’s misogynist husband Ronnie (Herschel Zahnd) just wants his little gal to come on home and take care of him, as he says in his rousing song “All American Male.” It’s one of the few songs performed without a mic, and also the show’s most triumphant number. Zahnd is a good actor with a wide range. There is Della’s sweet, loyal and not-too-bright husband, Ricky Jim (Ray Robinson), a good old boy just getting by. Mike Seely as Preacher Larry rounds out my top three. His character appears out of the blue on “Morning Glory Mountain” and brings real comic timing. He never misses a chance to hammer a joke in the ground. I saw opening night; with comic tweaking, and if certain actors step it up, this show could make it though a strong run. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com