StageSceneLA: Tanglin’ Hearts a “crowd-pleasing” show

Ten singin’, dancin’ Texans get their hearts all tangled up romantically in Tanglin’ Hearts, a tuneful new musical “loosely based” on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, now getting a promising World Premiere production at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40.

Duke Frederick (Sean Smith) narrates the tangled tale, one which revolves around plans his no-good varmint of a brother Ben (Kevin Michael Moran) has for building Benworld, a macho theme park offering such manly attractions as a hunting preserve, a race track, a casino, and a no-tell motel.

What Ben isn’t telling the public is that his actual plan is to pump New York City sewer sludge down Texas way and deposit it in the Benworld Back Forty, 40 acres of land he tells reporters will be “a protected wilderness area,” but which is, in reality, “a nice little toxic waste dump” where Ben plans to put “black gold” back into the Texas soil.

To achieve his despicable end, the “egg-suckin’ dog hangin’ around the hen house” has done whatever it takes to buy up all the necessary land, including promising to get young Webb Wells (Nick Denning) elected to political office in return for Webb’s signing over land owned by him and his brother Jesse (Madison Cassaday), and if that means faking Jesse’s signature, well what’s the harm in a little forgery?

To further achieve this end, Ben has engineered a plane crash, one which has left intended victim Jesse alive, but destroyed all the evidence Jesse had been collecting against Ben.

Fortunately, all Jesse needs to do to save Texas from Benworld is find a place to hide for the next twenty-four hours, by which time the Benworld escrow will have fallen through. Unfortunately for Jesse, Ben will do whatever is required to find him and silence him for good.

In the meantime, scuzzball Ben keeps himself busy publicizing Benworld, mounting a publicity campaign that includes coercing his daughter Celia (Cailan Rose) and his would-be country songbird niece Rosalind (Heather Barr) into singing sexist rap campaign jingles (“Benworld is a man’s world”) in their scantiest Daisy Duke-wear. (Did I mention that Jesse and Rosalind have a past, and that there’ve been romantic sparks between Celia and Webb as well?)

Completing the cast of characters are spunky country bumpkin Rowdy (Trip Langley), who’s been practicing the Texas two-step with the aim of dating blonde cutie-pie Phebe (Sarah Schulte), who won’t go out with him till he learns to dance; good ol’ gal Jackie (Susan Brindley), owner of the Tip Top Inn and a former flame of Duke’s; and recent Televangelist College grad Cal Mantee (Bruce Schroffel), an elderly coot who’s hoping to pocket the reward for locating Rosalind and Celia, who’ve managed to escape Ben’s clutches by leaving town disguised as big-haired “Wynomie” and “Danola.” Did you get all that?

Zora Margolis’s book is as homespun as it gets and so full of country turns-of-phrases like “If wishes were fishes, I’d have me a fry” that some may carp about its lack of sophistication. Though Tanglin’ Hearts could use some trimming and tightening, the show now overstaying its welcome by about fifteen minutes, Margolis has done a mostly fine job of countrifying a classic Shakespeare romcom. (Story credit goes to Margolis and Charlotte Houghton.)

Tanglin’ Hearts features a dozen and a half or so country songs by composer Peter Spelman and lyricist Margolis, a number of which will likely stick with you after the final fadeout. Among Tanglin’ Hearts’ best songs are a pair of wistful ballads, “Jigsaw Heart” and “The Last Call Of The Wild,” and the rousing Act One finale “It’s Gonna Be A Great Day In The Mornin’.” (I’m guessing at the titles, since Theatre 40 hasn’t seen fit to include a list of songs and the characters performing each.)

Allison Bibicoff has directed Tanglin’ Hearts with country gusto, as well as choreographing several lively group numbers and one cute, ingenious swing dance for Celia and Webb, complete with lasso moves.

Tanglin’ Hearts stars an all-around engaging cast. Cassaday makes a noteworthy debut as Jesse, his appealing performance featuring some darn good singin’ and guitar strummin’. The bubbly, big-voiced Rose is a down-home treat as Celia, while Texas native Langley nails his very first song- and-dance role opposite the fetching, effervescent Schulte. Though underused as Duke, musical theater vet Smith’s role allows him to show off the velvetiest pipes in town. Brindley is a warm and spirited Jackie, Denning a folksy Webb, Moran a cagey Ben, and Schroffel a wily Cal. Most marvelous of all is Barr, stepping into the show’s biggest role a week before opening and performing it letter-perfect with pipes that would do any country star proud. Gonzalo Palacios scores high marks as musical director, Tanglin’ Hearts’ live band including Sandy Chao Wang on keyboards and Josh Browne on bass.

Scenic designer Jeff G. Rack has created a nifty set that transforms quickly from Texas locale to locale, one which Ric Zimmerman lights with his accustomed expertise. Michèle Young’s bevy of Lone Star State costumes are some of her very best, set off by Conci Nelson Bakker’s excellent hair, wig, and makeup designs. Bill Froggatt contributes another expert sound design, and doubles as stage manager. Joshua Bradley scores points for his fight choreography, since it wouldn’t be Texas without a knock-down, drag-out.

Tanglin’ Hearts is produced by David Hunt Stafford. Kyle Nudo is assistant director. Jan Roper is vocal coach and accompanist.

Tanglin’ Hearts turns out to be not only the first musical among the over thirty productions I’ve reviewed at Theater 40, it’s one of the Beverly Hills fixture’s most crowd-pleasing efforts to date. Though it could use some savvy fine-tuning and prudent cuts, Tanglin’ Hearts may well have a bright future beyond its T40 debut.