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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 5.0° F  Fair
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Uneven tone mars Broom Street Theater's folk musical Minglewood Blues

Folk music usually sits well with me. When I read the press release for Broom Street Theater's new show Minglewood Blues, based on the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, I thought, What a clever concept!

The recordings in the Anthology were compiled by Harry Smith in the early 1950s and introduced many Americans to regional folk and blues music originally recorded in the '20s and '30s. It had a profound influence on a generation of musicians like Bob Dylan.

I was intrigued by writer Doug Reed's idea of taking iconic characters from those classic songs, plunking them down in the fictional town of Minglewood and allowing them to interact and intersect. After taking in the opening night performance last night, I still think it's a smart idea. But there are some problems with the show.

There are quite a few strong performances and several well written, sharply effective and evocative scenes, but overall it's a wild hodgepodge that is indulgently long-winded and distractingly disjointed in its tonal shifts.

Liz Angle plays Alice Fry, the character around whom most of the action revolves. At the show's beginning she is a murderous, fallen woman. We then retrace the story of this once fresh-faced and spirited young lady who meets a tragic outcome. Angle shines when she keeps it simple, wiping her wet feet on the hem of her dress in a genuinely lovely scene that sees Alice and her best friend Frankie (played by the talented and natural Kay Dixon) sitting by a creek and discussing their futures.

Later, Dixon is a revelation when Frankie is courted by her suitor Albert (Brendan Hartmann). She displays a full range of emotions even as she simply repeats the two words "no, sir," and her feelings for him develop. The scene is a real gem and shows the potential of the playwright, director and cast. Wonderful moments like this make me resent a lot of the craziness that surrounds them.

Also worth mentioning are Jennifer Russ, who brings sweetness and a wide-eyed knack for comedy to the dual roles of Miss Mouse (yes, that Miss Mouse, of "Froggie Went a Courtin'" fame) and John Henry's pushy wife Sally Ann. Frank Furillo does double duty as harmonica player with the live band and in the role of the devil; he excels at both and goes enjoyably over the top. Jake Jacobson and Deanna Reed as Alice's parents and assorted other characters both show a remarkable focus and precision of detail and diction.

Question: In Broom Street shows, why are there often things flying around the stage, or bizarre puppets? In this case a tiny bird puppet, operated and performed by Elizabeth Gokey, was just annoying and unnecessary, to me a symbol of how the production would have benefited from some editing and reigning in of shtick.

Doug Reed's dedication to the source material is obvious, and even the playbill cleverly reflects the style of Smith's liner notes for the original collection. But I think a narrowing of focus and tone would have helped quite a bit. I always appreciate some quirk and comic relief, but now I have the image of Miss Mouse being threatened with gang rape by Mr. Boll Weevil, Mr. Mole and Mr. Possum.

Director Marty Mulhern clearly had fun with this project and his cast, and he displays a wonderfully gruff and appropriate vocal style on his guest spots with the band. But the wildly uneven tone of his production does a disservice to the drama and the comedy both, and also feels strangely condescending to the source material.

The show's live band serves as a sort of Greek chorus. The band is Charles Guiteau and the Sharpshooters -- local musicians from various collectives who have come together on accordion, fiddle, harmonica, banjo, jug and autoharp to play songs from the Anthology and step into roles as needed. Their presence, on stage and off, is much appreciated.

I should reveal that I don't think my issues with the production were shared by the enthusiastic audience, and folk music enthusiasts might be curious to check out Reed's great idea. I just wish it was sharper and shorter.

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