by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hen the dialogue in a country music show like Honky-Tonk Laundry is mostly just a setup for the next song -- I'm so lonesome, my husband done me wrong, that sort of thing -- the audience's focus is naturally going to be on the performances. So when Janean Jorgensen (as Lana Mae, proprietor of the Wishy Washy Washateria) and Beth Black (as Katie, who's just lost her boyfriend and her job) stroll out to perform the first, split scene in Honky-Tonk (through Aug. 24 at CenterStage), it doesn't bode well when their diction is unclear and they fail to project with enough volume. Singing "Nine to Five," they introduce their tale of lonesome women who set up, well, a honky-tonk in a laundromat. But the details, literal and emotional both, aren't always clear. It's a nervous start to the evening.
Roger Bean's musical has so many country songs, it's packed fuller than Dolly Parton's brassiere. And while Dolly's tunes are well represented here -- "Shattered Image," "Potential New Boyfriend," "PMS Blues" and more -- the other usual suspects also make appearances: Tammy, Patsy, Loretta. Jorgensen shows wonderful range in emoting through their songs. Pleading that "I need a vacation from my life," she was affecting in that song's quieter passages; she was haunting in the desperate, tear-jerker soprano moments of "Jolene."
Black motor-mouths and leg-splits her way through a lot of good physical comedy; she has a girlish, lisping quality that serves her well in the dazed-and-confused-on-Valium sequences. She can bring out the humor in songs, too: comic self-pity in "I've Got a Right To Cry" and comic vocal stretches in "Yodeling at the Grand Old Opry."
The humor usually doesn't stray too far. Aware that the entire enterprise is a bit silly, Bean inserts self-mockery by including self-referential jokes (questions like "Has your mind ever been anywhere other than 1962?" and announcements of yet "another tragic country song"). Those songs, of course, appear in more-or-less random order, almost interchangeably; there's a kind of whipsaw effect as we lurch from no-good-boyfriend to liberated-woman to undying-love tunes. In addition, a couple of the foot-stompin' dance sequences seem like forced spontaneity, as do all the iterations of Lana Mae's cutesy country sayings ("I'll get you that in two shakes of a rattler's butt," she says, and it's downhill from there).
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he second act -- with the Washateria transformed into a nightclub and our two ladies now delivering the songs as big-haired temptresses in matching scarlet gowns -- jettisons any pretense of being anything other than a country music concert. Jorgensen, who excels at selling dramatic moments, excels again in the quiet defiance of Dolly Parton's "shatter my image with the stones they throw." Black harmonizes well on that tune, and we're off into a second-half romp that features audience members (men, naturally) being picked on as Katie's boyfriend and Lana Mae's husband (varmints, both of them).
For a nice contrast to all the comedy, Jorgensen and Black sit and deliver a simple, affecting version of "I Will Always Love You" that bypassed most of the sentiment (and, in the context of this show, reminding us that Parton wrote and released that song 18 years before Whitney Houston's cover).
Having rehearsed both of the roles in this musical, Olivia Brownlee will step in either as Lana Mae or as Katie during selected performances during the 10-week run. Meanwhile, the dinner theater's buffet selections include catfish (lightly breaded and very good), pork slices (tender, with a strong horseradish sauce), fruit (fresh), mashed potatoes (bland), collard greens with ham hocks (chewy but too salty) and cornbread (crumbly and sweet, almost like cake). With cast and menu changes, this Honky-Tonk will present an evolving experience that might be worth revisiting the next time your undies need cleaning and your heartstrings feel all strung out.