“Songbird”: Chekhov in the Deep South

The set of "Songbird" at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, NJ
The set of "Songbird" at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, NJ
Two River Theatre presents Songbird for its season finale

Two River Theatre in Red Bank has chosen Songbird, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull. Transplanting the play to Nashville, Tennessee and adding an original country score is a clever idea. Unfortunately, the finished result is a letdown.

Fading country star Tammy Trip (Felicia Finley) returns to her hometown with her current lover, Beck (Eric William Morris). Tammy’s return stirs up long-held resentments among her former friends. Beck’s arrival in particular causes unexpected problems. Mia (Ephie Aardema), the local preacher’s daughter, falls for him. This infuriates Dean (Marrick Smith), Tammy’s already resentful son, who loves her. Missy (Kacie Sheik), the local barkeeper’s daughter who loves Dean, is ignored by him as she in turn ignores Rip (Deon’te Goodman), a young black man who adores her. Further complicating matters is the declining health of Soren (Bob Stillman), Tammy’s older brother. There’s also the hidden long-term affair between Missy’s stepmother Pauline (Kelly Karbacz) and a local doctor (Drew McVety) which is known to but tolerated by Pauline’s husband Samuel (Andy Taylor).

The cast seems defeated by the book

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch and her talented cast seem defeated by Michael Kimmel’s book. Tammy Trip is a monstrous character who can’t help sacrificing everything and everyone to her massive ego and hunger for fame. While the play hints that Tammy’s money helps support her little part of Nashville, there seem to be no concrete signs of this and no other reason why the rest of the characters put up with her casual cruelties. She has left her son in the care of Pauline and Samuel, yet resents any implication that she hasn’t been a good mother. Beck, a successful singer/songwriter on his own, indicates he knows Mia’s protestations of love are only a mix of infatuation and hero-worship, yet the plot requires him to enter into an affair with the girl. As for all the talk of love in the play, it is just a word used to mask other needs — for adulation, for companionship, for artistic inspiration, for notice, for respect.

The pond set of "Songbird" at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, NJ
The pond set of “Songbird” at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, NJ

And yet… there is that music. The original score by Lauren Pritchard is the major reason to see this show. Her music ranges all over the country spectrum: now a foot-stompin’ rouser like “Country Roads”, then bluesy numbers like “Cry Me a River” and “Tennessee Blues”. There’s “Wandering,” a more modern approach to country, perfectly done as an imperfect song by a young tunesmith with a gift. “Highway Fantasy” on the other hand is the one work by a successful songwriter of which he is proudest. And the finale, “Heart Costs,” is an achingly, beautifully sad moment of revelation.

The show has glorious music and an impressive set. However…

Special praise goes to scenic designer Jason Sherwood’s set, both beautiful and functional, of a Tennessee honky-tonk whose walls retract to become a large gazebo overlooking the beauty of an evening countryside. This is enhanced by Aaron Porter’s skillful lighting design. Sarah J. Holden also does good work creating costumes that perfectly capture the time and the characters’ personalities.

Songbird has glorious music and an impressive set. However, those alone are not enough for me to wholeheartedly encourage theatregoers to come out to this show. It’s a shame, since this musical could have been so much better than it is. On a scale of one to ten, Songbird is “music 10, book 3.”

Songbird is presented by Two River Theatre at the Rechnitz Theatre in Red Bank through July 1, 2018. For tickets and information, visit tworivertheater.org.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.