Keepin' on the Sunny Side 

Stage show provides enjoyable, lighthearted look at June Carter Cash's early years, but could use more substance

Stage show provides enjoyable, lighthearted look at June Carter Cash's early years, but could use more substance

Wildwood Flowers

Presented by Wind in the Willow Productions

Through July 31 at the BellSouth Acuff Theatre

When June Carter Cash died in 2003, one of country music's most storied lives came to an end. A member of the Carter Family, an Opry regular, wife of Carl Smith and then Johnny Cash, co-writer (with Merle Kilgore) of "Ring of Fire," a Grammy-winning recording artist, mother of Carlene Carter, stepmother of Rosanne Cash—her saga encapsulates much of the music's history.

The new Wildwood Flowers, playing through this weekend at the BellSouth Acuff Theatre, makes a high-spirited attempt to capture June's early show-biz adventures, and, on some levels anyway, it's successful. Carlene Carter, nearing her 50th birthday, takes on the role of her mother, providing a strong resemblance and firm vocal grasp of much of the traditional material.

Including encores, there are 27 songs covered in two acts, ranging from the timeless A.P. Carter catalog ("Keep on the Sunny Side," "Wildwood Flower," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken") to a June co-write with theater composer Frank Loesser ("No Swallerin' Place") to other tunes penned by Harlan Howard, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, Smiley Burnette, and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters themselves.

Structurally, Wildwood Flowers is a descendant of shows such as Always, Patsy Cline and Stand by Your Man, recent dramatizations of the lives of outstanding women in country music. In this genre, a mix of narration and dramatic scenes forms a loose framework onto which the principals can hang the songs. The template holds true in this effort, though it's a softer story, devoid of combative personal relationships or tragedy. With its focus on June's early years, we witness little tension. Easy setups and a generally lighthearted approach lend the revue ample musical opportunities.

Bobby Bodford and Angela Bennett's script has some warm moments and humorous passages, but the crafting is fairly rough (ditto Bodford's direction); clearly, this opus is designed primarily as a vehicle for Carlene to pay tribute to June. She embraces the challenge, using a variety of talk-singing, yodeling and husky growl to nostalgic effect. Given the helter-skelter rhythms of Carlene's own life—married (and a mother) twice before the age of 20, well-documented struggles with substance abuse, and a herky-jerky musical career that has slipped in and out of country, rock and pop—one gets a strong sense that her appearance here signals a homecoming of some kind. Certainly her tearful curtain speech ("Mama would've loved this") is indicative of a return to her roots.

Many of the cast members and musicians give admirable performances. Gina Stewart makes for an excellent Mother Maybelle, singing with warm power and providing an ample demonstration of her character's famed "scratch" style of guitar playing, which influenced generations of country musicians. Janet McMahan, formerly a touring pianist with Roy Orbison, brings her assured musical gifts to the proceedings, but also displays some fine acting skills as sister Helen. Mark W. Winchester pulls double duty on bass and guitar, and also works in a brief but charming turn as Chet Atkins, rendering two numbers ("Bashful Rascal" and "Under the Hickory Nut Tree") that strive to capture the great guitarist's "aw shucks" persona. Mark Horn trades off on drums and banjo, then offers the evening's surest comedy moment as an off-key singing preacher in "Church in the Wildwood." Tying things together musically is Chris Cassello, who moves from electric guitar to pedal steel, playing with flair and a firm grasp of the idiom.

With its cardboard-ish set pieces, the visual feel of Wildwood Flowers smacks of the Grand Ole Opry in its Ryman days, as does the lineup of folksy tunes. It's no surprise, then, that a touristy crowd, typical of an Opry audience, responded with head-bobbing zeal. Yet one can't help but wonder if the potential exists for a serious cradle-to-grave dramatic piece about June's life, as varied and important as it was. Such is not realized here, though there is plenty of music and family celebration to go around.

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