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Off Broadway Reviews

Good Ol' Girls

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Liza Vann, Teri Ralston, Gina Stewart, Lauren Kennedy, and Sally Mayes.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

There aren't too many takeaway lessons from Good Ol' Girls, the new oppressively gentle Steel Magnolias–meets–Mamma Mia! musical that just opened at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Its prevailing theme - that Southern women (of any age) are as spunky, as resilient, and as representative of the best of America as they come - is hardly an original declaration. But you'll learn one thing you may not have fought possible: When Sally Mayes battles an electric guitar, technology ain't gonna win.

This is not, mind you, a frivolous revelation. Mayes has had a storied history of spicing up musicals as diverse as Closer than Ever, She Loves Me, and Urban Cowboy, but she's always brought her steel-spined verve to such scores as an equal. Here, in the middle of "Late Date with the Blues," in the middle of the show's otherwise unremarkable first act, she doesn't bother pretending. When the band's virtuosic country guitarist (Ralph Agresta) leans into a ceiling-peeling, last-forever riff, Mayes is right there with him, scatting her soul out at first and finally drowning him out altogether.

It's a decisive win for anyone who has ever lamented the overamplification of theatre, especially in venues (like this one) that seat fewer than 99 people. But beyond that, it represents exactly the kind of intimate connection with humanity, and the blurring of the boundaries between voice and emotional experience, that most revues (and jukebox book musicals) of this sort lack. What's more shocking still is that Good Ol' Girls has been directed by Randal Myler, the king of just that sort of audience-pleasing but feeling-deficient genre and the helmer of entries ranging from It's Nothing But the Blues, Dream a Little Dream to Love, Janis and Hank Williams: Lost Highway.

Unlike with those other shows (in whole or in large part), Myler has guided here a smoothly clicking evening that keeps its goals and your expectations at a low-enough level so it can easily surmount them on a regular basis. Paul Ferguson's threadbare book and adaptation of stories from Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle provides an acceptably slow-burn backdrop for the catalog of songs by Matraca Berg and Marshall Chapman that define these representatives of a distinct way of life, what you may call the Southern Sacred Feminine. And set designer Timothy R. Mackabee's literal backdrop of a map of the Carolinas reminds you that you'll find similar types almost anywhere you travel below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Avid churchgoers, beauty salon owners, wives and girlfriends who alternately adore and are abused by their men (and frequently stand by them nonetheless), these women run the gamut. Yet when they sing "Down to My Last Guardian Angel," "Booze in Your Blood," "All I Want is Everything," or "Back When We Were Beautiful," they're utterly convincing as circumscribing a unique existence. Easy sentiments promoting empowerment or refuting outdated prudishness may make you roll your eyes (and often), but you'll have to fight to keep them from misting over when the women sing from the heart about all they see vanishing from themselves and their surroundings.

The cast, which also includes Lauren Kennedy, Teri Ralston, Gina Stewart, and Liza Vann, is a savvy group that provides the kind of visual and vocal mix this rather repetitively rhythmed score needs. They sometimes do double duty on instruments as well: Kennedy pulls out an autoharp on one occasion, and Stewart plays a mean (acoustic) guitar throughout. Ferguson and Myler make sure you understand at every turn that these women, like the real-world ones to whom they're paying tribute, can do anything.

Had this idea never been expressed before, the occasional highs of the show - including Mayes's primo, lyric-less vocalizations - might have made it thrilling. As it is, Good Ol' Girls is a good ol' time - but far from a great ol' one.

Good Ol' Girls
Through April 11
Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania

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