Review: 'Pure Country' Regional Premiere at Lyric Stage

Review: 'Pure Country' Regional Premiere at Lyric Stage

Chris Jackson

  • Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Sure, you’ll probably know what’s going to happen next in Pure Country, and you’ll know pretty much that you’re being manipulated, but chances are that won’t stop you from having a good time listening to the music and enjoying the boot-scootin’ dances and exuberant high spirits of the production.

Our hero, Rusty, or as he used to be known back home, Del, is a country superstar who’s fed up with all the glitz and glamour of the road, and just wants to return to his small town roots where everything is simpler and purer. (Yeah, just go with it.) He goes AWOL and returns to his hometown sweetheart, and while all might not go exactly as Rusty/Del might hope, we know it’ll all turn out alright in the end, and sure enough, it does!

Based on the 1992 movie of the same name starring George Strait, screenwriter Rex McGee has rewritten that script for the stage. Composer Steve Dorff and lyricist John Bettis wrote songs for the movie, and have created a whole new score for this version. A couple of the numbers are real standouts, especially “It Ain’t Texas” which gets a great response from the audience.

The script that Mr. McGee has come up with, so far, for this incarnation, needs work if it’s to travel all the way to Broadway. A brief opening flash-back scene with young Rusty/Del that opens the show just doesn’t quite work and a better opening would probably be to go straight to the second scene, which is one of Rusty’s big concerts, which might start the show with an audience-grabbing bang.

The script, while likeable, is really predictable with not much to hold our attention or keep us intrigued about the next stage in Rusty’s life. Thank goodness the musical numbers and the fine performances and singing voices of the cast come along to lift the story and our spirits.

Director/choreographer John de los Santos works his considerable magic by keeping the pace brisk (despite the pesky scene changes) and the performances clean, clear, and sharp. The scenes build when they need to, the songs flow out of the action (mostly), and characterizations are filled out, even when the script doesn’t provide that much for the actors to work with. Dances are terrific to watch, with all participants having what appears to be a great time, loving what they’re doing. Texas line dancing has never been this much fun to watch.

As our hero, Harley Jay takes center stage first as superstar Rusty, complete with wig and Stetson, flashing lights and screaming fans, and then as his old-time, true self Del, returning to his roots, hoping to regain his love of authenticity and inspiration. Mr. Jay has a nicely commanding presence on stage, sharing his scenes with his fellow actors, appearing fully engaged at all times, with a singing voice that makes the premise believable. His extensive Broadway, TV and touring experience and having his own band make him seem right at home in this role. 

Harley Tucker, Rusty/Del’s old flame, is played by Marissa Lesch who also brings truth and credibility to her characterization. She matches Mr. Jay moment for moment with emotional truth and strong vocals. Her first number, “But I Did,” is filled with heart-felt longing. Her character arc is clearly defined and a pleasure to watch. You want the two lovers to reunite and live happily ever after. Which, no spoiler alert, they do!

Cara Statham Serber as Lula Rogers, Randy’s manager and Justin Duncan as Marty, the HBO guy are both local performers who more then hold their own. Ms. Serber appears to have a great time being acerbic and sexy and conniving all at once and sings her big number in the first act with terrific showmanship. Mr. Duncan is expectedly, comically blustering and distraught as Marty, never losing sight of where the character is going and what he wants.

Julie Johnson, a great local favorite with extensive professional credits of her own, plays Mama Ivy with her customary commitment to any role she inhabits. Fully invested, she takes the stage when it’s her turn, singing her heart out in “Pure Country” and “Prairie Rose.” Her natural affection for the other characters is never less than convincing.

Brent Loper Is Earl, Rusty’s old friend, disappointed and disbelieving Rusty’s motives for returning. Mr. Loper also has a strong professional country background and it’s evident in his smoothly done vocals and presence on stage. He looks the part and responds in ways that always seem right for the moment. His number, “Pickin’ and Grinnin’” is very well done.

As Charlie Boles, the superstar hope-to-be, Jacob Lewis is under-utilized and makes us wish he had more stage time and that we knew more about his character. The same can be said for Eli Lujan, the young actor who plays Little Del and David Lee. His duet, “Back Among My Yesterdays,” with Rusty, shows really strong vocal ability and some serious acting chops.

The entire ensemble is always engaging and a delight to watch, their singing and dancing never less than thrilling. Thankfully they are a diverse group physically and character-wise, and it makes their persona as residents of a small Texas town completely feasible. A big part of what makes this production work is the strong ensemble. 

Scenery by Randel Wright is his usual strong and pleasing product with the Prairie Rose bar setting totally convincing, looking like every great Texas bar you’ve ever set foot in, and the house exterior fully believable also. It’s a pity that the script, as written, makes some of the scene changes interrupt the flow of the show. Lighting design by Julie N. Simmons is both realistic when it needs to be and theatrical when that effect is called for. It works smoothly and effortlessly, guiding our eyes seamlessly where they need to be. Costume Coordinator Andrew Givens appears to have had a good time putting together clothes for real people and yet defining each character completely. Sound Design by Bill Eickenloff keeps the music and the dialogue clear and forward.

Eugene Gwozdz’s conducting of the on-stage band, vocal and dance arrangements and orchestrations, and his music direction of the singers pays off in a rousing swell of great sound that envelops the audience and pulls the show along, adding excitement at every opportunity.

The show doesn’t break any new ground or have any unexpected twists, nor does it shock or raise any controversial conversation. Nobody dressed like Trump gets assassinated and there isn’t any nudity or huge special effects like falling chandeliers to get the blood pumping. What the show DOES have is a fully engaged cast playing recognizable people in everyday situations with a happy ending assured from the beginning. Perhaps in today’s climate, that’s a refreshing change. “What if” is a question we all dally with from time to time, and watching the character of Rusty have the guts to give up his stardom for what he perceives as a deeper happiness, while a simple plot device, is still enjoyable to watch. We all want to root for “pure country” to triumph over sleazy commercialism at least some of the time.

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