BANGOR — Well paint my face blue and call me Roscoe if I didn’t have a heck of a lot of fun last Saturday at the Bangor Opera — or should I say Opry? — House, where I saw Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Honky Tonk Laundry.”
This two-woman show of near non-stop country classics had the full-house audience tappin’ its toes and ultimately on their feet for a well-earned standing O and I bet I’m not the only one who spent the drive home trying (without much success) to yodel.
Peppered with cliché country idioms and tropes, the plot of the show, written by Roger Bean, is pretty dang cornball, involving a couple of good ol’ gals who, sick and tired of their philandering menfolk, decide to turn their laundromat into a night club to showcase their own considerable talents.
Had the talents of the two actresses playing Lana Mae (Heather Astbury-Libby) and Katie Lane Murphy (Laura Hodos) been less than considerable, the whole thing would have been like a bad night at the karaoke bar. But as it happens these two women’s combined talents — uh, make that divas — are not simply considerable, but spectacular. In song after song, these two paid proper homage to Patsy, Dolly, Tammy, Loretta and other country superstars, with their powerful voices and stage presences.
I was initially somewhat disappointed that the singers were amplified throughout the show because their voices are so strong, they could have easily filled the small theater. But then again, microphones are a big part of the country music scene and make all the sense in the world when, in the second act, the gals turn their Wishy Washy Laundromat into a music stage.
It might have been fun for the mikes to appear — like the technicolor in “The Wizard of Oz” — only when this transformation happens, but because “Honky Tonk Laundry” is essentially a revue, rather than a true musical, Director Dominic Varney probably made the right call here. Varney made many right calls, for that matter, throughout the entertaining, fast-paced evening; especially the second act, where it’s pretty much all about the music and some fun interaction with the audience. There are some nice little two-stepping dance moments, to boot. Literally to boot when they sing the Nancy Sinatra hit “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.”
Other musical highlights of the show, which careen from hilarious to heartbreaking, include Lana Mae’s rendition of “Stand by Your Man,” “Smile,” and “Jezebel,” and Katie’s Patsy Cline moment, “Independence Day” and “Queen of Denial,” and just about all their duets, but most especially the poignant “One Good Friend” and crowd-pleasing finale “Heaven, Heartache and The Power of Love.”
Astbury-Libby packs enough power to rival Emera and Hodos’s multiple octave range and vocal textures are simply astonishing. Together they are a formidable team with seemingly boundless energy.
Of course, while these two women take total command of the stage, hovering above them like flannel-clad angels was their excellent backup band of Phil Burns on keyboard, Phil Kell and Chris Poulin on guitar, Tom Libby on drums and Gaylen Smith on bass.
And, oh, that stage! Tricia A. Hobbs has created the laundromat of your dreams here with her banks of washer dryers that get positively psychedelic at certain points and a minstrel gallery with a raked frame that really does make it as if like they are floating above the action.
Jimmy Johansmeyer’s costumes go from trashy frayed denim and stretched out T shirts to fringed and sparkly fabulosity transforming Lana Mae and Katie from laundry ladies to country stars.
Scott Hough’s lighting and effects also are spectacular, and Sean McGinley earns special kudos for his terrific sound editing that achieved a perfect balance between the singers and the band.
“Honky Tonk Laundry” runs through Feb. 24. For information and reservations call 942-3333 or go to www.Penobscottheatre.org.