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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Mostly Cloudy and Breezy
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The Miss Firecracker Contest won't win any prizes
Pageant loser
Carnelle flees her slutty past.
Carnelle flees her slutty past.
Credit:Brian Ebner

I'd like to say the embattled Strollers Theatre have returned to the Bartell Theatre in fine form, but their production of The Miss Firecracker Contest doesn't put them in phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes territory.

Who's to blame? Is it playwright Beth Henley's Southern gothic comedy? Director Jeremy Thomas Poulsen? Or the cast? Ultimately it's a combination of all three. Henley's comedy, which enjoyed a run on Broadway and was turned into a movie, is a bit maudlin and not a great play.

Carnelle (Julie Logue) decides that earning the title of Miss Firecracker at her small town's Fourth of July festival will give her a fresh start and free her from her sad and slutty past. She is surrounded by misfits: her former beauty-queen cousin Elain (Miranda McClenaghan); another cousin who was recently released from a mental institution (Colin Woolston, delivering a more authentic and subtle performance than his cast mates); and new friend Popeye (Karen Saari), who is sewing Carnelle's star-spangled costume.

I wish Poulsen had asked the cast to tone down their performances. Most overplay their roles, so we're left with broad caricatures instead of endearingly quirky portrayals. There are too many over-the-top ticks, making it feel like a bad day on the set of Designing Women.

Act one is particularly shrill and annoying, mostly because it's supposed to be funny and just isn't. Things get a little better in the second act (although I couldn't come to terms with the gangrenous-looking prosthetic nose on a character). Logue is more believable after her character's disastrous pageant experience.

I should compliment the cast on how good they sound. I've been subjected to many mumble-mouthed theater performances, and that's no small thing. The actors' clear, strong voices resonated throughout the theater and were much appreciated.

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