By Philip Pearce
Paper Wing Theatre’s ‘Live Musical Tribute’ to O Brother, Where Art Thou? works like a happy, down-home hoedown. The ecstatic, nearly sold-out opening night audience clapped and sang along with the four-member bluegrass band and again and again applauded the cast of 33 to the theater rafters.
From principals to ensemble, the big roster of players were clearly having as much fun as the audience, though with varying degrees of acting experience. What keeps the whole enterprise together and flowing is a gifted trio of lead actors who work wonders as the escaped Mississippi jailbirds whose adventures light the spark and move the action of this episodic story. As Ulysses Everett McGill, Lj Brewer is an irresistible blend of explosive leadership, pretentious classical learning and goofy blunders. His obsession with his pomaded hair is as funny to watch as it is a smelly annoyance to his two fellow escapees. One is Pete, a wonderfully mournful but too easily seduced Michael Alliman, and Delmar, a delightfully starstruck Matt Hanner, who makes a fine art of getting the wrong end of the stick and complicates life for the fugitives by getting “saved” on a riverbank by a passing band of evangelicals.
Director Koly McBride has managed to fit pretty much the whole of the Coen Brothers’ cinematic take on Homer’s Odyssey, its wealth of characters and its many incidents and settings, into the narrow confines of Paper Wing’s Hoffman Avenue quarters. It’s billed as “a tribute,” and that assumes a fan base so familiar with the movie that it’s no big loss if a few of the finer plot points occasionally get blurred in the headlong rush of scenes. The ones that seem to work best are the character-driven moments like the loony recording session in the studio of Pappy O’Daniel (nice character work by Jay Divine) and the discovery that Pete seems to have been punished for succumbing to the charms of a scantily clad siren by being turned into a toad. More epic incidents like the torching of the barn and the thwarting of Sheriff Cooley (a terrifying Keith Decker) by a biblically proportioned flood inevitably depend heavily on sound effects, actor reaction and a lot of audience imagination. The most successful of these big moments is the rescue of the trio’s black ally Tommy Johnson (an appealing Brent Hill) from a Ku Klux Klan mob with the small playing area turned into a menacing sea of chanting white hooded figures. It’s an important and challenging sequence whose power is a tribute to the oratory of Ronald Cohen as the masked racist Stokes and the organizing skills of Director McBride.
The show continues weekends through April 12th.