Heaven in Your Pocket
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
September 17, 2008
Two dozen new, full-production musicals hit town this week with the 2008 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Always eager to see new work with fresh talent, I went to see Heaven in Your Pocket, by the late Mark Houston. The talented cast does justice to Houston's memory. And, although the book, completed by Francis J. Cullinan and Dianne Sposito, remains predictable throughout, the enthusiastic cast propels the plot forward with animated fervor and, thankfully, fine voices.
The story revolves around a domineering mother, Arlene, who keeps a tight leash on her grown daughter, Kay Lee, for fear she will repeat her mistakes. Kay Lee dreams of a singing career in Nashville. They and Mary Celeste, Arlene's friend and the third in this singing trio, are on their way to Nashville when Arlene makes an unannounced detour to the Starlight Lounge in Kansas City, a joint owned by Kay Lee's father (Arlene's ex). He has just died and left the place to his daughter. Kay Lee never met her father, and she has no interest in this dump or in Kansas City. This is her first time out of Heaven, Oklahoma, and she intends to realize her dream.
The two acts in Heaven feel distinctly different. As directed by Alan Souza, Act I sees characters skating on the service, acting a bit goofy, despite the death and the dump. Kay Lee has little time to react to the heavy load that has just been handed her: death of a father she never met and her inheritance. But then there's a lot of exposition that needs to be squeezed in and that's what it feels like, although there are a couple of numbers that try to ground it—namely "Make 'Em Want What You Got" and "Trouble Tonight," a spirited choice for the opening night at the Lounge. Although the journey is all too clear in Act II, the direction allows the actors to respond with the necessary gravitas when Arlene and Kay Lee go head to head.
Phoenix Vaughn grows from a compliant daughter in Act I to a confident singer and independent woman in Act II. Essentially, she sets the tone for the second act with her heartfelt "Candy and Jimmy." Rebecca Spencer is strong and spirited in her interpretation of Arlene. Lisa Asher as Mary Celeste makes an appealing counterpoint to her friend's willfulness, displaying pride in her full figure and establishing her easy personality early on in "Make 'Em Want What You Got." Claire Slemmer, Mark Shock, and Chuck Saculla fill out the cast in supporting roles.
Tim McMath designed a simple, effective lounge set; David Withrow created apt costumes; G. Benjamin Swope designed lighting; and Aaron Blank created sound. Tex Arnold and Louis Tucci, on stage as they should be in a club of this sort, accompany with piano and guitar.