It’s a Ruff Life
Performed through June 30 at Darkhorse Theater, 4610 Charlotte Ave.
For tickets, call 834-9729
A new musical comedy opened at the Darkhorse Theater last weekend. But before I go on any further about Jesse Goldberg and Gene Levine’s It’s a Ruff Life, consider yourself warned: Tickets for the Friday and Saturday shows are $15. (Thursday and Sunday prices drop to $10 and $12, respectively.) That might not seem like much for a night of theater, but given the state of this production, a more modest admission charge would be appropriate.
“We’re new at this,” Goldberg said to me on opening night. “We don’t know what we’re doing.” This would explain the outrageously woeful state of the set (unpainted, masking tape on floor), hideous lighting, and clunky scene changes (done by cast and crew in full audience view).
Aesthetically, the showwhich offers a dog’s-eye view of the worldis in desperate need of a director. The staging is credited to Susan Manning, but she probably had her paws full since she plays one of the lead roles as well.
As an evening of theater, it’s an unbridled disaster. But here’s the funny thing: There’s the germ of a successful stage piece here. The personification of dogs is the themedomesticated life vs. life as a stray. Overlooking the technical problems on embarrassing display, the simple tale has a charming set-up, at least five decent songs (some of which are memorable), and warm humor throughout.
It took over two-and-a-half often painful hours to wade through the proceedings. But It’s a Ruff Life boils down to a 60-to-70-minute one-act musical, probably with potential for the children’s theater market. Its focus needs to be shrunk, its plot refined and expanded to feature more conflict, and its filler songs dumped and replaced by better ones. But there’s sincerity and playfulness in the script and music, and it comes through, even in what has to be considered a workshop production.
The actors aren’t bad, either, considering there are times when it doesn’t look like they were directed at all. The singing veers from fair to middling, but at least the songs get heard. The biggest surprise is the performance of singer/songwriter Don McNatt, who hosts the cable-access television show Writers in the Round. He’s absolutely delightful as Rex, the domesticated shepherd-collie mixed-breed. So is Mike McRee as the stray Haskell. Young Lenny West does nicely enough in the lead as Frisbee the golden retriever. And Manning, for all her shortcomings as director, is quite lovable in the role of Tiffany, the stray spaniel mix. Nashville community theater veteran Lon Gary plays the alpha stray, Duke. He’s as good as Dick Van Patten would be in the role.
Nashville’s kind of a dog town, and there might be an active audience for this show. But at $15 a ticket, this production will test the loyalty of even the most dedicated dog lover.
Dinner theater gets a bad rap, albeit for a reason. The fare is lightweight comedy or tuneful musical. It requires little of the audience in the way of reflection. Silly farces are common. (Titles like No Sex Please, We’re British or Wife Begins at Forty come to mind.) But it’s the kind of thing that, if you bring a positive attitude to the table, goes nicely with chicken and roast beef.
So with all proper perspective in place, I’d have to say that there’s a winning dinner theater show currently on board at Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre. A Bad Year for Tomatoes was written in 1974 by John Patrick, author of The Curious Savage, which is a staple of community theaters nationwide. The play was originally set in Vermont. In the Chaffin’s version, it’s set in Mississippi, which is somehow ironic since a theater in Florida, not too long ago, set the play in Tennessee “to play up that area’s Southern shtick.”
No matter. Wherever it’s set, the joke’s the same: A Hollywood actress moves to a small town to get away from show business angst and to “write her memoirs.” She meets a collection of daffy yet likable locals whose interest in her becomes too intense. So our heroine concocts an alter ego, crazy sister Sadie, to keep the neighbors at bay. Mistaken identity and the resulting confusion are the order of the day, with the sitcom-like dialogue evincing consistent, middle-brow laughter.
The Chaffin’s production is probablyas good as this kind of thing gets. The actors stay in character and play it for all it’s worth. The comic bits are deftly rendered and only occasionally overdone. The direction by Carter Throweralso Chaffin’s head waiteris perfectly agreeable throughout.
Most of all, this production benefits from the presence of leading lady Martha Wilkinson, a vivacious and attractive actress who has done things with higher gloss than dinner theater. That said, Wilkinson was born to do light comedy, and she’s simply a pleasure to watch. She struts energetically through three acts as Myra Marlowe, delighting in her new role as countrified tomato-grower and serving as foil for the zany antics of the townsfolk of Beaver Haven.
Wilkinson gets good support too, from a cast that’s all on the same page. J. Dietz Osborne is solid as Myra’s lovesick agent; Joy Tilley-Perryman and Kimberly Nygren are right there as the nosy, muumuu-clad neighbors; Jennifer Noël plays the nutty local psychic with all the right restraint; and David Compton makes a humorous late entry as the cornpone sheriff.
But for all Wilkinson’s charmand it is considerablethe star character turn of the evening is delivered by Adam Burnett as Piney, Beaver Haven’s resident screwball jack-of-all-trades. Burnett has but to stand onstage to provoke laughter. To his credit, he doesn’t milk the gig, which is probably pretty tempting. Nevertheless, he gets loads of legitimate laughs, and, true to the secret of good comedy, he takes what he’s doing seriously.
It’s a nice drive out Highway 100 to Chaffin’s. Nice show too. For dinner theater, that is.
A Bad Year for Tomatoes runs through July 14 at Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre, 8204 Hwy. 100. For tickets, call 646-9977.
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…
How ironic that "Vandy radio" gets resurrected as a fictional station?! I was just glad…
Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.