nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 21, 2009
There's nothing more exciting in the world of indie theatre than the feeling that you are discovering something very special, something that has the potential to become a big, big hit. That's the feeling I had after seeing the premiere of Our Country at Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. This musical about a country singer's rise, fall, and turnaround is top-notch entertainment, with a splendid score by Tony Asaro and a star-making lead performance by Justin Utley. With the right stewardship and nurturing, Our Country can and should become a huge, affirming, crowd-pleasing, heart-warming hit.
The story concerns Tommy Dautry, who confesses to us, when we first meet him in the opening musical number "Lord, Lord, Lord, How the Mighty Fall," that he has recently been arrested for "lewd conduct" with an undercover cop. Once a rising star in the Country Music scene, now Tommy is a has-been and a joke, fodder for National Enquirer covers, rejected by the industry and fans that once adored him.
He then narrates for us his life story, from his roots in a small town in the Bible Belt where he and his pal Duane become the center of a local band. Though Duane is a fundamentalist Christian and Tommy is an ambivalent, closeted young gay man, the two fall in love, and the song that Tommy writes for Duane, "Honestly," becomes their ticket to Nashville and a recording contract. A romantic night together leads to a close shave that prompts Tommy to abandon Duane and play it "straight." He becomes a star, with a string of hit records. But he's empty inside because of the double life he believes he must lead to sustain his success. His public fall from grace follows. Can he find the strength within himself to pull himself back up?
You already know the answer to that question. Like Jersey Boys and countless VH-1 Behind the Music shows, Our Country travels some well-trodden territory, albeit with a gay twist that makes it timely and gives it a certain gravitas. What makes this show special is the material: Asaro's score of 16 songs is toe-tapping, infectious, smart, witty, and often quite moving. There are great theatre songs in the mix: "Not Like That At All," for example, is a jubilant celebration of first love and first success that pushes the show forward brilliantly in its early scenes. "Sicka Singin' 'Bout Girls" is about exactly what the title says, and proves to be a great turning point in the story. The eleven o'clock number, "When Music Mattered," is Tommy's heart-felt summation of what he's learned in the play. And the finale, the title song "Our Country," is a rousing anthem that should get adopted by anti-Proposition 8 folks pronto.
Dan Collins's book and David Taylor Little's direction are a little less well-developed than Asaro's score at this point; some dramaturgical shaping will help make Our Country into the well-polished gem it deserves to be. (Not much, mind you: just a little nip here and tuck there.) One of the great things about the show's structure is the way that the band—Eric Day on electric bass, Matt Hinkley on electric guitar, Arvi Sreenivasan on drums, Justin Smith on fiddle, and Jeremy Pasha on piano—interact with Tommy throughout the show (they essentially play all of the other characters in what is otherwise pretty much a one-man musical).
Perhaps the strongest asset of this production, apart from Asaro's marvelous score, is that one man. Justin Utley, a newcomer to the NYC theatre scene, sings and acts the role of Tommy with unwavering presence and enormous charm. We love this guy, even when he's doing the most heinous things; we're really rooting for him to turn his life around. Utley is a fine singer with plenty of range and a well-developed sense of humor. I see big things for him in the future.
As, indeed, I do for Our Country. This feels like it could be a breakout hit on the order of Rent or the aforementioned Jersey Boys, though on a smaller scale: it has more heart, more melody, and more musical theater craftsmanship than most of the new shows on Broadway right now. I expect we'll be hearing more about it soon. Meantime, head over to the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity and become one of the first to experience this excellent new musical.