Honky Tonk Tanks

This is the worst Interplayers show we’ve seen in nearly 20 years

What if some actors showed up at a cowboy bar and started enacting dramatic scenes from Tennessee Williams? They’d get shoved out into the parking lot.

Why then are theater managers allowing balloonbreasted Dolly Parton caricatures and hot-pantsed farm girls in pigtails to croon pickup-truck music inside a theater?

You want some Patsy-Tammy-Loretta-Dolly melodies, one after another, with rote patter and corny choreography interjected? Fine. They have casino ballrooms for that.

People go to the theater to be exposed to new sensations and ideas, not to be talked down to as if they were a bunch of mindless, lovesick stooges.

Honky Tonk Angels, a musical revue seldom produced (and for good reason), is at its most depressing when the audience feels the need to clap along feebly to the pre-recorded, drum-machine beat of “Delta Dawn” while a trio of low-rent angels (white satin dresses, silver belts) act as cheerleaders, their eyes pleading with their onlookers.

By the end of that “Delta” song, I didn’t care what goddamn flower she had on — and as for “Ode to Billie Joe,” I wish Billie Joe McAllister would hurry up, jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge and take this show and its “playwright” with him.

Oh, Honky Tonk Angels — bravely performed by a trio of women with pasted-on smiles — has its moments of harmonized prettiness. But it’s a floor show, not a musical.

Jennifer Jacobs has the trio’s loveliest singing voice and a gift for engaging front-row onlookers while riffing on “playwright” Ted Swindley’s predictable patter.

Marina Kalani gamely tries to inject some hubba-hubba excitement into a mostly anemic “9 to 5.” As the farm girl, Emily Cleveland’s throatier delivery didn’t project as well. But there was some lovely three-part harmony at the end of “Paradise Road,” and “I Will Always Love You” was a stirring highlight.

And while the singers were hampered by piped-in music — there are no live musicians here — the evening prompted a lot of “Five down, 26 musical numbers to go” thinking. Because characterization is not Mr. Ted Swindley’s strong suit. At least his Always… Patsy Cline (performed at Interplayers in 2003) had the benefit of the developing singer-fan friendship and Cline’s tragic story arc. Unfortunately, as subtitle for this show, apparently he chose “Two and a Half Hours of One Damn Thing After Another.”

No, I’m not a country fan.

But as my review of Crazy Heart (page 39) demonstrates, I like it fine when it’s sung to express genuine dilemmas and accompanied by credible behavior that doesn’t talk down to its listeners.

The purpose of selling out like this — of doing a show for people who don’t really like theater — was to rake in the bucks so that Interplayers can live to fight another day. And maybe the theater will sell a few more tickets to country fans who aren’t regular theatergoers.

But later this season, will those country fans return to the likes of Eleemosynary and Psychopathia Sexualis?

Pandering doesn’t equal profit. Pandering just drives away your core audience.

The way to make people come back to Interplayers is to perform intelligent comedies and dramas, not the Hee Haw high jinks of dreck like this.

And as for ticket sales: The opening-night house was exactly half full.

Artistic director Reed McColm is working hard to rescue a Spokane cultural institution that people care about, as the capacity and near-capacity audiences for the recent Love Letters fundraisers attests. But his board’s decision to pin their hopes on a Honky Tonk hit were unfounded.

In my 18 years of going to Interplayers, Honky Tonk Angels is the worst show I’ve seen. Only one or two others even come close.

So it’s fitting that Honky Tonk’s bumpkin characters sing “I’ll Fly Away” four times.

After Feb. 21, thankfully, they will.

Honky Tonk Angels continues at Interplayers, 174 S. Howard St., on Wednesdays-Sundays through Feb. 21. Tickets: $15-$21; $12-$19, seniors. Visit interplayers.com or call 455-PLAY.