Coat of Many Colours (Stage 41, CKUA Performance Space)
By Marc Horton
In country music there’s Patsy and Loretta, Emmylou and Reba, Kitty and Skeeter, Naomi and Winonna, Tammy, Shania and Trisha.
Fans are on a first-name basis with them all: they know the names of husbands, moms, dads, kids, lovers. They know hometowns, albums, band members, record sales, tour dates. They know song lyrics by the wagonload.
But there is only one Dolly, the magnificent, inspired, funny, brilliant, bewigged country singer with the tumbling cascade of blonde hair and the figure that redefines ”hourglass.” (She’s cleverly self-deprecating too, and once happily confessed, “It’s expensive to look this cheap.”)
You can also add “mysterious” to the list of adjectives that apply to Dolly Parton, one of the greatest songwriters in any genre, anytime and anywhere. Other than the barest of facts — no kids, a hubby named Carl in a marriage that’s lasted five decades and counting — people know very, very little about Dolly, and it’s clear she likes it that way.
I suspect, however, a playwright is presented with some unique challenges when putting together a show celebrating the genius of a woman who is so guarded. It is a challenge happily met and overcome by actor/singer/playwright Andrea House in Coat of Many Colours, her winning and wonderful homage to Dolly Parton and her long, celebrated career as country star and crossover hitmaker.
And although House and fellow vocalist Gianna Read-Skelton don blonde wigs, this is by no means an impersonation. It is a tribute show, pure and simple, but with crystal clear harmonies from these two superb singers who know they have struck gold with the songs of Dolly Parton. If personal details are scarce, there is always the music, heartfelt and often tender at times, edgy and confrontational at others.
In its own way, it is revealing. In its own smart way, it is enough.
We learn of Dolly’s profound affection for her home state when House and Read-Skelton blend their powerful voices in Tennessee Homesick Blues. We understand heartache with the ballad Jolene, where a wronged woman pleads with another that she leave her man alone. Lifelong yearning is made clear in I Will Always Love You, written by Dolly after she left the Porter Wagoner Show, a television production that lasted an astonishing 19 seasons.
And I have always felt that 9 to 5, a song that earned Dolly an Oscar nomination, is one of the greatest working class songs ever written.
But call me a sap, Coat of Many Colours always gets me. Always. Every time. House and Read-Skelton got me again with their outstanding take on this unforgettable song about a mother’s love for her daughter, a daughter’s love for her mother and the pain of crushing poverty. It’s also autobiographical.
A word here, too, about the back-up players. Mitch Watkins, a Texan who played guitar in Lyle Lovett’s band for over a decade and also played with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Jerry Jeff Walker and K.T. Oslin, joins Harley Symington, resident guitarist at the Mayfield Theatre, and composer/improviser Erik Mortimer on piano. They are flawless.
— Marc Horton was a long time film reviewer and books editor at the Edmonton Journal. He first saw Dolly Parton in the old Edmonton Gardens in the early ‘70s. He was initially bewitched by the wig and the figure but when she opened her mouth to sing, a lifelong fan was born.