Farmers Alley’s ‘Honky Tonk Angels’ is a hootenanny of pure gold
KALAMAZOO, Mich.–If country music is your thang, you’ll be wanting to ride your “hoss” on down to Kalamazoo’s Farmer’s Alley—but call first, because most of their shows are sold out. They had to add a weekend and those are the only shows that have seats still available for their country cabaret, Honky Tonk Angels.
Directed by Sandra Bremer with music direction by Marie McColley Kerstetter, this show features three women who bring out the heart of country with two and a half hours of down-South songs with a little bit of story stringing it all together.
It’s a cabaret, created by Ted Swindley (who also did Always Patsy Cline), that celebrates the joyfulness of country music. It isn’t the “my dog is dead and my truck just got stolen” junk country music. No, these are the women of country. They might sometimes complain about their men and how much they drink, but there is a whole lot of laughter, love and a few dashes of heartbreak.
There are three women that help cover a whole lot of country standards. The show is introduced by the big-haired red-head Angela, played by Gina-Maria Chimner. She’s our narrator, a Texan who is a proud owner of a double-wide, mother to six children and wife to a man named Bubba who spends a little too much time at the bar.
Next up, in brown pigtails is the young and innocent Darlene, played by Cara Palombo. She’s the daughter of a coal-miner and is struggling with the death of her mom and a tragedy with her boy friend. She now spends all her time taking care of her moody father. They moved from West Virginia to Mississippi.
The third in the trio is Sue Ellen, played by Misty Cotton. She was born and raised a Texan, but now this busty blonde has fled her two divorces to work as a secretary in Los Angeles where she has an overbearing boss with nose hairs who gives her too much inappropriate attention.
All three are ready to leave the baggage of their lives behind and pursue their dreams of country music in Music City, Tennessee.
From when they first sing “I’ll Fly Away,” they make it clear that Bremer made no mistakes in casting. Their voices are a perfect blend and the trio knows how to harmonize. Even if you don’t like country music, it is a treat to listen to these three voices sing together.
They also do well at their theme songs that establish their stories. Chimner sings “Stand By Your Man,” belting it out with energy while ironing his clothes—until she takes a cell phone call that changes her mind about all the constant loyalty.
Palombo smiles her way through “Coal-Miner’s Daughter,” immediately establishing her good and optimistic heart and setting up the audience for her more sinister “Ode to Billy Joe.”
Cotton shows us she has more of a comic edge to her with “9 to 5.” She evokes Dolly Parton with her looks and her moves and definitely makes the most of the song.
All three ladies, as different as they are, give us reason to love them and to root for them. The first half of the show focuses on their stories and how they come together as they pursue their dreams. The second half of the show is more of a hootenanny as they show their stuff with each song being part of their show and not having to tell their story directly.
While both halves are different, they each have their celebratory joy to them. They invite you to laugh at all the quirkiness of Southern women, but never in a way that is mocking or cruel. Rather, it is the laughter of bonhomie and inclusiveness.
The technical staff also keeps busy. The show wouldn’t have nearly the country feel that it does without the work of Steve Hodges on hair and wigs. The two older women start out with big hair in the first half and then all three of the women make major hair changes all throughout the second half. Wig after wig takes each song to its extreme and supports all the jokes in the script.
Lissa Hartridge and Sarah Maurer also keep up the pace with giving the three women plenty of costumes in the second half of the show to put on their cabaret, with different outfits for each song, ranging from ancient Egyptian costumes to angelic dresses to cowboy wear and plenty else.
Jason Frink’s lighting design not only provides transition between place and time, but he also lets you know that you are in Honky Tonk Heaven and each song gets its own special effects.
Douglas Blickle came up with a scenic design of panels that open and close to depict different places while having spaces between to let you see Kerstetter and her orchestra. Savannah Draper makes sure the singers have plenty of toys to play with from bologna sandwiches to guitars to laptops.
Kerstetter leads an orchestra of guitarists (rhythm, steel and bass), fiddle and drums while she plays the piano. They’re all excellent, but it is especially fun to listen to Nick Rankin on fiddle who brings authentic country sound to the show.
Cabarets have become a tradition for Farmer’s Alley in their holiday slot. They serve up delicious deserts, a berry cheesecake on opening night, along with coffee, tea or hot chocolate—or you can buy a drink form their full bar including special cocktails created for the show. It makes for a warm, entertaining evening. Honky Tonk Angels fits right into this tradition with a show designed to make its audience feel good and leave with a smile.