AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music, Lyrics and Book by
Tommy Newman & Mark Allen
Directed by Robert Kelley
Presented by TheatreWorks
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, CA / (650) 463-1960

Reviewed by Judy Richter

TheatreWorks is celebrating the start of its 40th anniversary season with a world premiere musical, "Tinyard Hill." Although it's a brand new show, in some ways it symbolizes the history of this respected regional theater company. TheatreWorks' first show, "Popcorn," also was a world premiere musical, it took place during the Vietnam War, and it was directed by founder Robert Kelley. Likewise, "Tinyard Hill" takes place during the Vietnam War, and it's directed by founder/artistic director Kelley. With Kelley at the helm, TheatreWorks has continually grown in stature, but it has retained one of its primary commitments, which is to develop and stage new works. In fact, "Tinyard Hill" is the centerpiece of the company's New Works Festival.

Created by Tommy Newman and Mark Allen, "Tinyard Hill" is set in a small town in rural Georgia in 1964. That's where Russell Kingsley (James Moye) and his 18-year-old son, David (Chris Critelli), own and operate a blacksmith shop that has been in the family for several generations. Russell wants to keep doing things just as they've been doing them, but David has bigger dreams. He wants Russell to use his mechanical talents to expand into an auto repair shop.

In the meantime, their next-door neighbor, May Bell Whitehead (Allison Briner) welcomes her 18-year-old niece, Aileen Garrett (Melissa WolfKlain), from New York City. Aileen is there so that May Bell can alter the dress for Aileen's marriage to a 30-year-old psychiatrist. Inevitably Aileen and David are attracted to each other. It also turns out that Russell and May Bell were once in love, but their romance was interrupted by Russell's being drafted into the Army during World War II. Likewise, a draft notice arrives in the mail for David as the war in Vietnam begins to heat up.

The country- and rock-style music is easy on the ears, especially since all four actors sing well. The script has some really funny lines, many of them coming from the earthy May Bell. The book does a good job with the dilemma over the draft: Should David go? Should he run? If he runs, will Aileen go with him? It also does well with the relationship between May Bell and Russell. However, one has to wonder what motivated Aileen to become engaged to a man 12 years her senior. Clearly they started dating when she was in high school. That's a huge age difference for her. On the other hand, David and she are the same age, but their life experiences and cultural backgrounds are vastly different. Yes, they're young and foolish, but they don't give much consideration to their differences. Finally, it's a bit curious that although Vietnam is just beginning to move onto the front page, there's no mention of the civil rights movement, which was far more prominent at the time.

The show is well structured, but "The Dooly County Fair," the final scene of Act 1, needs more clarity. Until then, May Bell and Russell haven't told David about the draft notice, nor have they told him about their efforts to buy him a deferment. And with the song ending with each person expressing different thoughts in ensemble, things get muddy. They're clarified in Act 2, but for now the Act 1 finale unsettles the audience as it heads into intermission.

As usual, TheatreWorks endows the show with high artistic values. Set designer Tom Langguth and lighting designer Pamila Gray help to set the scene as the audience enters the theater and sees moss-laden trees silhouetted against a dark blue sky. Costumes by Cathleen Edwards are right-on for the time, and Cliff Caruthers' sound design adds to the ambience. Musical director William Liberatore conducts four fellow musicians from the keyboards.

"Tinyard Hill" has lots of entertainment value, but it might need some further tweaking. It would be interesting to have a sequel set two years later when David gets out of the Army after presumably serving in Vietnam, especially given that today's audiences know that too many of the survivors were physically or mentally damaged by their experiences.

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