Evil Cheez Productions is running the original production, The Last Revival at the First Baptist Church of Butterbloom Flats, Alabama, at the Lowry House in Huntsville, through the 26th. It’s an entertaining evening of goofiness, with a lot of old-time hymns.
Wayne Miller must have had an interesting time in church as a child. When he wrote this show, he crammed it full of quirky people he apparently remembers from his youth, living in a small town, and attending a small backwoods church. One assumes that this 90-minute production packs in all the craziness from an entire childhood, rather than being an example of a “normal” service, or he never would have survived to adulthood. The show is set in the Baptist church of a small town in the early part of last century that is about to be underwater, because the nearby TVA dam is almost complete, and everyone has to move. The 30-minute first act is a “rehearsal” of sorts, as members of the congregation stop by to chat and practice their songs for the last service. The 60-minute second act is the service itself, with the audience as part of the congregation. Interspersed between roughly twenty songs, we get to know this zany group of characters, and have some laughs.
I have the utmost respect for playwrights, because without their work, theatre couldn’t exist. All the great plays START with a great script, but finding that magic mingling of elements to get a great script takes lots of lonely hours. Wayne Miller’s Last Revival is a great concept, along the lines of the Smoke on the Mountain plays–great music and singing, mixed in with some humor. There is a great germ of a play here, but this current script doesn’t quite reach its potential. Last Revival doesn’t have the serious moments that Smoke does, for example. It doesn’t HAVE to have that–the jokes and hi-jinks are great–but there is a missed opportunity for some pathos, given that this is the end of a town and a day of goodbyes. Additionally, the first act simply has to be expanded, or this needs to be a one-act play, because the audience is just getting comfortable when intermission arrives. Miller should also consider reducing the cast list and combining some of the characters, because much of the current group exists for the purpose of a mere comedic bit or two. One romance is mentioned in the first act, but then never goes anywhere in the second act, and the other romance gets a lot of script time, but misses the final proposal line the audience is waiting for. Finally, though”revival” is catchy for the title, the service falls a bit short of that. While there is one energetic “witness”, there is no fiery revival sermon, humorous or no. All that said, it IS a fun, silly evening, and one does hope that Miller finds the time to work on this script some more and bring it back someday.
Wayne Miller also directed the show, and he did his best in the rather confining limits of the stage space available in the old Lowry House front rooms. There simply is not a lot of room to move actors around, and still keep the action in the audience sight lines. There are a few times in the first act, when nominally the church is empty and the audience is “not there”, when the blocking is a bit forced, and moves were obviously made to “stand in front of the people in the other room”. It cleans up nicely in the second act, however, when they can actually address the two rooms, and have a more obvious excuse for moving back and forth. All the difficult blocking constraints aside, Miller assembled a marvelous group of actors, and managed to differentiate them quite well with some distinct, interesting characters.
This is a rather large cast, given the size of the acting space, but it’s a very nice ensemble, with some good moments throughout. Todd Hess holds forth as “Moss Hensley”, the preacher of the church, and does a really fine job with this character called on to shepherd a troublesome flock. Greg Branham has fun playing the curmudgeon of the congregation, “Deacon Silas”, and also sits behind the piano for a few songs. Amy Landreneau and Melissa Braswell, as the identically named “Bernice Clotfelters”, have a wonderful feuding scene that stretches across the width of the church, and provide both laughs and the expected touching reconciliation moment. Jeremy Woods brings some high energy to his witnessing, as “Chippewa Coleslide”, and we can’t help but say “hallelujah” with him.
The music is largely “old time” gospels. Chapman James, as well as being the music director, plays the part of “Deacon Sam”, and provides one of the better parts of the show with his banjo accompaniment (and one song on the spoons). Cleve Bagley, as “Johnny James” joins in nicely on the guitar for part of the first act, and most of the second. Kat Cox, as “Pearline Hensley” opens the show accompanying herself on the ukelele, and Greg Branham on piano has already been mentioned. Singing along to all this fine music is a wide range of voices. On one end of the scale, Sue Hassett takes on a unique challenge with the role of “Ruby Ruth”, because she has to sing very, VERY badly, and she does so quite well. On the other end of the scale are Amy Landreneau and Ryan Rorick, with very nice, smooth voices. Ryan, playing “Johnny James Jr”, has a little trouble staying on-tempo with his accompaniment at times, but otherwise has a very pleasing voice. The rest of the cast falls somewhere in the middle, with honest, real singing, that is totally believable for this play. The one real unfortunate note about the songs was that hardly anyone had anything memorized, even the old classics like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, which any congregant in those days would have known by heart. Unfortunately, the lack of memorization required the cast to read music, and apparently the production was unable to find hymnals to use, so everyone was holding report binders with print-outs. Still, the songs were nice, and there were a number of times the “congregation” was singing along.
The technical elements are necessarily light, given the limits of the performance space. There is no scenery, or lighting design, per se, but the few sound effects were nicely done, and the loose cat is quite convincing. Sue Hassett, as the Costumer, did a nice job of assembling looks that at least suggest the period, given the limited budget of this group.
Overall, this is an entertaining evening. Plenty of laughs and great characters. The script has a ways to go before it’s ready for prime-time, but it’s still a worthwhile evening at the theatre. Evil Cheez Productions specializes in producing original scripts, and it is exactly that kind of dedication that needs full support, because from workshops like this will come the next Broadway hit. Performances continue Fridays-Sundays through the 28th, at the Lowry House in Huntsville. Ticket information and show times can be found at this link.
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