The oft-used term "feel-good" was tailor-made for the new District Theatre folk/bluegrass musical, "Big Rock Candy Mountain," with an old-fashioned, good-natured book by director Tristan Tapscott, and glorious, full-bodied musical arrangements by Danny White.|
Set in 1932 Owensboro, Ky., a band on the run with a secret (the five harmless guys are escaped convicts) finds itself in a small-town theater, and must pose as the Good Ole Boys Bluegrass Band to outrun the law and save the joint from the crazed mayor and his crooked, evil wife.
An affectionate homage to (and near mirror of) "Southern Crossroads" (done twice at Circa '21, featuring Mr. Tapscott), "Big Rock" is a clever, simple, homespun story of hope and the communal magic of music.
The entertainment begins before a note is sung, as the town's sheriff Willie is on the hunt for theater owner George. As the imposing and loud Willie, Wayne Hess is all bluster and bravado, a comic caricature (as both the show's main villains are). Mr. Hess playfully interacts with the audience before the show, and during the show we find out why -- because George has unpaid debts Willie wants to collect.
George is surprised to find the previously booked band didn't show up, though they sent their instruments ahead (which serves the plot nicely). George stalls for time by telling some bad jokes, and the quintet of escaped convicts shows up, and while they haven't played together in years, they fall together fairly smoothly.
Doug Kutzli as "The King" initially plucks just one string on his mandolin, which happens to fit the key of their first song (the show's title number). Mr. Kutzli, Mark Ruebling and Tom Vaccaro -- as the three lead vocalists -- display tight, solid harmonies throughout the show.
They're all irresistibly eager to please, especially Mr. Ruebling as Levi, and the whole multi-talented band (including the non-singing Kyle Jecklin and Rocky Kampling) moves effortlessly among a variety of instruments.
At a few key points in the intermission-less, 100-minute production, the nasty, haughty Velda (Linda Ruebling) interrupts the good times, threatening to shut the theater down and sarcastically insulting the band and the audience. As the mute mayor Teddy, Mike Kelly is creepily (but appropriately) plastic, smiling and waving, with a glazed, crazed look in his eyes.
One of the many musical highlights is "House of the Rising Sun" (a classic folk ballad made famous in the '60s by the Animals), given a soulful, passionate rendition by Mr. Kutzli (a District veteran as Scrooge in Mr. Tapscott and Mr. White's "Christmas Carol"), who also unfurls his harmonica.
In an inside joke for those who've seen "Southern Crossroads," Levi notes that they picked that song up from their friends, the Green Family Singers (the bluegrass band in that show). "House" is among a handful of songs in common between the two musicals -- which also share a similar era, look, sentiment, musical styles, and message.
As George, Chris Tracy is upstanding, sympathetic, earnest and decent. Mr. Tracy capably sings a couple songs, including the lovely waltz, "Broken Down Tramp." The solid, solemn "Hard Times Come Again No More" displays impressive four-part (nearly a cappella) harmony, including Mr. Tracy.
There is much audience participation during "Big Rock," as the characters talk with the crowd and we can't help but sing and clap along to several uptempo, infectious numbers, like "Midnight Special" and "Amazing Grace."
As in "Southern Crossroads," getting one of the key opposing players drunk seems to work wonders here, for the humor and resolution in the story. Mr. Hess is an uninhibited, amusing drunk -- but then he kind of seemed that way to begin with.
Even stagehand Clyde (Anthony Natarelli) gets to sing, and his gentle, intoxicating waltz "Moonshiner" reveals a beautiful, strong voice. In a way we don't for most of the other main characters, we learn of Clyde's back story, and the influence of his circus-performer father.
Mr. Kutzli tells the tale of how the five men got jailed, after defending the innocence of the "Scottsboro boys," nine real-life black teenagers accused of rape in Alabama in 1931 (that famous case itself is the subject of a Kander-and-Ebb musical from 2010).
Suitably, the band launches into "Alabama Bound," with brushes on a banjo evoking the chug-chug of a train. After Velda (the brutally conniving Ms. Ruebling) spews more of her hatred, Teddy finally finds his voice and confronts her. Mr. Kelly really lets it all hang out in a cathartic, raging harangue, that's an exhilarating joy to behold.
As is this show overall, which satisfyingly closes with the whole cast reprising a few of the favorites.
If you go
What: "Big Rock Candy Mountain."
When: Friday and Saturday (plus June 5-7) at 8 p.m., and Sunday (plus June 8) at 2 p.m.
Where: The District Theatre, 1611 2nd Ave., Rock Island.
Tickets: $20; districttheatre.com or 309-235-1654.
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