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Friday, March 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

"Play It By Heart" is a rags-to-rhinestones musical tale

Seattle Times theater critic

Now playing

"Play It by Heart" Score by David Spangler, Jerry Taylor and R.T. Robinson, book by Brian Yorkey. Produced by Village Theatre. Plays through April 24 at Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah. $32-$45. www.villagetheatre.org or 425-392-2202. (Also runs April 29-May 15 at Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett. 425-257-8600).

For compelling rag-to-riches stories of female country-music icons, think of Loretta Lynn's saga, in the film "Coal Miner's Daughter." Think of Patsy Cline, in "Sweet Dreams." Consider the dramatic potential in the colorful lives and careers of the late June Carter Cash and Tammy Wynette.

But a sudsy fictional saga about a hard-livin', hard-lovin', hard-singin' Nashville clan dominated by a tough matriarch and her two bickering female offspring?

For "Play It By Heart," the world premiere musical at Village Theatre, you have to imagine a family reminiscent of the famed Judds spilling tabloid secrets on an extended episode of "Oprah," with pauses for cornball quipping by their men and full-spangled musical numbers. And the entire shebang unfolds at a snail's pace, while not missing a single cliché on the long, predictable road from catty clan conflicts to rhinestone-studded reconciliations.

On the brightest side, "Play It By Heart" does boast a score of torch-and-twang ballads and rousing toe-tappers that are so polished, you can easily imagine them popping up on the next Dolly Parton or Wynonna Judd album.

Small wonder, considering the Nashville music scene credentials of co-composers Jerry Taylor (who has written tunes for the likes of Wynette and Johnny Cash), and David Spangler. Together, over 18 years, they also wrote the catchy honkytonk-and-heartbreak lyrics for this squabbling divas saga, with the late R.T. Robinson.

And a big plus is Gail Bliss, a sure-voiced, Grand Ole Opry veteran, on hand to croon many of the numbers — the recurring waltz "Blue Eagle Ballroom," the sassy "Gonna Be Your Little Devil Tonight" — with a fine backup band that embellishes her warm alto with steel guitar and fiddle flourishes.

"Play It By Heart" debuts under Steve Tomkins' unusually plodding direction. Its story doesn't get us beyond a melodramatic and superficial acquaintance with country superstar Jeannine Jasper (played by Bliss), her shrewish stage mother, Naomi (Sharva Maynard) or their rebellious relation Jamie Lynn (singer-actress Katie E. Tomlinson).

Incongruities abound in Brian Yorkey's rickety book for the show. Jeannine pops pills and knocks back booze a lot, yet only appears tipsy in one scene. Her reunion with an old flame who ditched her, Billy Tucker (Jim Gall) goes from ho-hum to hot-and-heavy in about two seconds.

The younger, Shania Twain-sexier Jamie hooks up with a New York record exec with a very Jewish name (Ari Gold, played by Keanu Reeves look-alike Joshua M. Bott), who is repeatedly, tiresomely ridiculed for looking funny in cowboy boots (which — news flash! — are actually available in Manhattan, too).

Then there's the tedious marital dynamics between Maynard's relentlessly toxic Naomi, and her nice, good ole boy spouse Buck (John Patrick Lowrie) — who presumably stays married to this harpy so he can joke with the guys about how henpecked he is.

The show's settings are tacky (by the usual standards of both the Village Theatre and scenic designer Edie Whitsett). The amplification is glitchy. The dances are nearly nonexistent. And apart from Bliss and Tomlinson, there isn't a soloing actor here with a voice that's up to snuff. One campy element that's sorta fun: the gaudy, Opry-flash costumes designed by Karen Ledger.

Bliss has already made an album of songs from "Play It By Heart," which is on sale in the Village lobby. You could get to the beating heart of this otherwise torpid musical by giving it a listen.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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