‘Songbird’ soars for fans of boot-stomping, honky-tonk version of ‘Seagull’

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A new honky-tonk musical based on an Anton Chekhov play is stomping the stage at the Two River Theater through July 1. 

Set in a small Nashville bar where whisky is a food group, music on the out-of-tune piano is more rhythm than melody and dead keys a must, plus the ability to dance the two-step is required, 10 real good friends and relatives are trying to sort out their lives — badly. 

As in Chekhov’s 1896 play “The Seagull,” the musical “Songbird, written by Michael Kimmel with music and lyrics by Lauren Pritchard, centers on the romantic and artistic conflicts among four main characters: Tammy Trip (Felicia Finley, “The Wedding Singer,” “Mamma Mia!) is a Grand Ole Opry star whose light is fading; her son Dean (Marrick Smith (“Fun Home”) is an aspiring songwriter who’s been ignored by a mother he rarely sees; Beck (Eric William Morris, “Be More Chill,” “The Ballad of Little Jo”), is her much younger lover and very successful songwriter and Mia (Ephie Aardema (“The Bridges of Madison County”) is AWOL from her Southern Baptist family.

For those familiar with “The Seagull” that translates this way: Tammy Trip is fading actress Irina Arkadina, Dean is her symbolist playwright son Konstantin, Beck is the famous story writer Boris Trigorin, and Mia is the misguided iingénue Nina.

Not that you need to know anything about Chekhov nor his play to follow “Songbird.” After matching the previous four characters, it’s better to stop. A fondness for folk, bluegrass, and country pop would be a plus, for there is much more singing about broken dreams than talking, and a whole less character development. 

The rest of the ensemble cast includes Kelly Karbacz (“Orange Is the New Black”) as Pauline, Drew McVety (“The Sting,” “The Front Page”) as Doc, Kacie Sheik (“Hair,” “February House”) as Missy, Bob Stillman (“Act One,” “Grey Gardens”) as Soren, Andy Taylor (“Sunset Boulevard,” “Once”) as Samuel, and Deon’te Goodman (“Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical”) as Rip.

And the actors supply the music for all 18 songs in this 2½ hour production via acoustic, 12-string and electric guitars, violin, cello, mandolin, ukulele, egg shaker, and tambourine.

It’s Tammy’s return to her Nashville roots in the bar owned by her former singing partner Pauline, her husband Samuel and daughter Missy that launches  life-altering events. Everyone is happy to see Tammy, but it doesn’t take long for her to turn nasty, especially when it comes to her son. 

Sheik’s Missy is the mistress of verbal zingers.  Finley’s Tammy is a  self-absorbed diva who denigrates her son in front of everyone, leading to tragic results. And Smith’s Dean, seems to hate her back and is jealous of the attention she lavishes on Beck, while he develops an interest in the young Mia who is the object of Dean’s affections. With me so far?

Meanwhile, bar mistress Paulina is sleeping with Doc (an excellent moody and mysterious McVety), who’s having second thoughts about the affair. Rip, the bar back, loves Missy who loves Dean. And Tammy’s brother Soren? He’s the only one who seems happy with his lot in life, which includes cigarettes and whiskey shots for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Stillman’s portrayal is joyous to watch as well.)

“Songbird,” previously staged at the Off-Broadway’s 59E59 Theaters in 2015, is neatly directed here by Gaye Taylor Upchurch with choreography by Marc Kimelman and music direction, arrangements and orchestrations by Kristopher Kukul. 

Scenic designer Jason Sherwood’s impressive neon beer sign-cluttered bar melts away to a moon lit lake. Totally impressed by how the blue haze from the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee hung over the set for the entire show. 

Costumes are designed by Sarah J. Holden, and Aaron Porter is the lighting designer.

“Songbird” tickets at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank, range from $40 to $70, with various discounts for  groups, seniors, military personnel and their families, veterans and people age 29 and younger. Available at 732-345-1400 or tworivertheater.org.

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