Book and Lyrics by Aaron Posner
Music by James Sugg
based on a short story by Mark Twain
Directed by Pamela Hunt
Florida Studio Theatre, Keating Mainstage
1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota, 941-366-9000, To Nov. 2, 2008

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Doggone, if I ever did hear so many in the crowd split beween loving ‘n couldn’t care a hoot ‘bout a tall tale following an intro by a just fine four-man band, like a Li’l Ole Opry, and right on stage too.  (Mostly, ‘cept for ballads, they play bluegrass. Sure does fit the settin’ with woodsy General Store t’one side, Grays’ cabin t’other though, tell you the truth, it conjures country-western more ‘n outstate Missouri.)
Deer Creek’s got a problem! Hugh  Gregory (Aaron Young, one handsome, clear-voiced blond with mighty innocent ways) and Mary Gray (wide-eyed, sweet singer Jiliian Louis) want to wed. But Hugh (rhymes funny with you, true, an’ a whole lotta other words in lyrics same as regular talk) isn’t well off, and Mary’s daddy (ornery Trip Plymale, on vocals provin’ worthy of his Diamonds fame) insists on a son-in-law to break “The Curse of John Gray.”  That’s bein’ on the poor side, not like brother David Gray (Billy Vitelli, squinty-villainous). When he’s mysteriously killed, Mary’s willed his fortune, just so’s she weds anyone but Hugh.  John Gray’s all fer other suitors to come a-courtin’.  
Enter a Stranger (slippery, dark Nick—as in “full of the ole”Santa Maria), accentin’ his real smooth speakin’ in tongues, all Romance and piled with accents, to boot. Seems awful  good to John and, early on (though she gits suspicious later), even his wife Sally (sparky Joyce Nolen). Looks like “Ill Fated Love” for the young ‘uns, specially when Hugh’s convicted of murder ‘cause the weapon was his. He’s all but fallin’ from the gallows, while the preacher (Andy Paterson, downright handy with a guitar and as good a narrator as you’d want, too) is trying—long, hard, funny--to get Mary to say “I do” to the Stranger. Well, I dasn’t ruin the ending fer you, ‘cept  to say the Stranger  may not come clean ‘bout “Dirty Deeds” but Sheriff Thwacker (Vitelli, turned into a good guy) sweeps him away. You gotta guess ‘bout the Marriage takin’ place.
There’s a li’l bitta ever’thing you either love or not: corny jokes, some audience participation, dancin’ from square to cloggin’ (thanks to Choreographer Stephen Hope), musical numbers easy to listen to but jest as easy to ferget  (no faultin’ Music Director David Nelson ‘n other music-makers Irving Goldberg, Jens Kramer, Alan Satkowski). Scenic Designer Nayna Ramey’s real clever fittin’ in a scaffold but makes you wonder why the Grays’d sleep out on their front stoop ‘stead of in their cabin. No doubt ‘bout MartyVreeland’s true lights, though. Costumer Marcella Beckwith shows off 1876 clothes well-lived in, while her caped Stranger’s extra-fancy, vested black suit’s a dilly. Production Stage Manager is Dean Curosmith for the 1 hour, 45 minute show, with 12 minute intermission.
As a man in the seat next to me summed things up: “Coulda been better, coulda been a lot worse.” I’d say for sure Director Pamela Hunt’s  brought out the better.      

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