Review by Byrne Harrison
Country music fans forgive of a lot of things. Arrested for DUI? Boys will be boys. A bit of domestic violence? It's bad, but you're forgiven. Drugs? We all make mistakes.
Gay? Well now, that's something else entirely.
Our Country, a new musical with music and lyrics by Tony Asaro and book by Dan Collins, confronts the issue head on. Tommy Dautry (Justin Utley) has it all - a great voice, a hit love song, "Honestly," that's climbing the country charts, a top-notch band, and a killer smile that charms everyone who sees it.
He also has Duane (Jeremy Pasha), his keyboard player and down-low boyfriend.
Knowing that he'll never catch the brass ring with a boyfriend in tow, Tommy dumps Duane and kicks him out of the band. While he does become a success, the pressure of leading a double life and hiding his sexuality (with the help of the occasional hustler, as explained in the rollicking "Hookers") becomes a bit too much to bear. After an incident involving an undercover cop and a men's room, Tommy spirals down to rock bottom. Faced with continuing to live a lie or embracing his true self, he picks up his guitar and starts over as an out and proud country singer, with a new band in tow. Our Country is presented as a performance on his comeback tour, one that seems limited to skanky venues in out of the way towns.
Begining with the rousing and funny "Lord, Lord, Lord, How the Mighty Fall," Tommy narrates the story of his rise and fall, from his first taste of love (the charming "Not Like That At All"), leaving his small town life behind ("Hittin' the Highway), desire to live his life openly ("Sicka Singin' 'Bout Girls"), and his revelation about life and his place in it ("When Music Mattered" and "Our Country"). Asaro proves himself an exceptional songwriter, capturing the sound and spirit of country music and the storytelling of musical theatre.
Dan Collins' book captures much of the same spirit of Asaro's songs. He also does a good job of taking the needs of the story (exposition, interaction between Tommy and Duane, etc.) and making them work in the context of Tommy's comeback performance. The result is much more theatrical than any country music concert would be, but Collins has captured the essence completely. One weakness in the book is the idea that Tommy would need to start from scratch in rebuilding his career. Embracing one's sexuality openly and honestly tends to lead to universal acclaim from the gay community (athletes Esara Tuaolo and Ian Roberts come to mind, or Neil Patrick Harris and Lance Bass). What made Tommy a pariah among country music fans would have made him a celebrity in gay circles. Our Country shows Tommy performing at a gay sex club, and while it allows Tommy and his band some ribald banter and emphasizes the message of the first song "Lord, Lord, Lord, How the Mighty Fall," it doesn't ring true.
One of the strongest aspects of this production of Our Country is Justin Utley. He has it all - looks, charm, talent, and an excellent voice. He's great when interacting with Pasha (the two have really good stage chemistry), the band, and the audience. As played by Utley, it's easy to see why Tommy was a star, and easy to imagine that he will be again. Jeremy Pasha performs well as Kevin and Duane (it's complicated, but Duane is played by Kevin, Tommy's current keyboard player, who is in turn played by Pasha). Kudos to the rest of the band - Eric Day, Matt Hinkley, Justin Smith, Arvi Sreenivasan - who are not only good musicians, but do a good job serving as a sort of chorus for Tommy.
Minor problems aside, Our Country is a terrific show and features some outstanding songs. While you may have missed your chance to see it at the Planet Connections Festival, it wouldn't surprise me to see this show get revived soon.
Music and Lyrics: Tony Asaro
Book: Dan Collins
Producer: Tony Asaro
Director: David Taylor Little
Music Director: Eric Day
Production Stage Manager: Debra Stunich
Associate Producer: Jennifer Ashley Tepper
Orchestrations: Tony Asaro
Set Designer: David Taylor Little
Lighting Designer: Nick Soylom
Sound Designer: Gregory Jacobs-Roseman
Costume Designer: Gordon Leary
Sound Board: Bill Nelson
House Manager: Kevin Cummines
Featuring: Justin Utley (Tommy Dautry), Jeremy Pasha (Kevin/Duane)
Band: Eric Day (Electric Bass/Music Director), Matt Hinkley (Electric Guitar), Justin Smith (Fiddle), Arvi Sreenivasan (Drums), Jeremy Pasha (Piano)
Planet Connections Theatre Festivity
440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor
Closed June 27th