By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
With Nashville Outlaws, the Mayfield returns to a hit revue it created and premiered some 15 years ago. And why not?
In these isolating, leaden times, an homage to country music renegades Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, has life advice for us. When you get the blues get rhythm (it will put a rock and roll feeling in your bones). Who are we to argue with The Man In Black, in this regard at least?
Fashioned by the ever-mysterious Mayfield muse Will Marks with Sara-Jeanne Hosie (seen here recently as Patsy Cline), the entertaining show currently running at the Mayfield assembles a generous hit song list and a really excellent band (led by virtuoso guitar licks from Harley Symington). Ah, and a trio of performers who capture signatures aspects of a legendary trio of cultural renegades.
The enthusiastic narrator (Melissa MacPherson), who will step out of the super-fan frame and up to the mic impressively as June Carter and Jessi Colter, brings a nicely ironic edge to her lofty assessments when she describes the title outlaws as “a travelling Mount Rushmore of country music icons.”
But not before she’s called them, variously, “raw” and “uninhibited,” and paid tribute to the ways the “outlaws” went up against the sanitized corporate Nashville record establishment. “Whatever country is, some of us ain’t,” says one.
We will learn that the three had in common blue-chip credentials in substance abuse and serial divorces (not unrelated), and touring stardom that came with trimmings like “women throwing themselves at them.” But the music is what the show is all about. And the performers capture the individual styles, cadences, attitudes of the three without resorting to mere impersonation, with its parody potential.
As Cash, statuesque, deep-voiced Roman Pfob, who can wear a black top-coat (designer: Leona Brausen) with the best of them, returns to the Mayfield in the role he occupied in 2007. Jefferson McDonald (seen here recently as Jerry Lee Lewis in the Mayfield’s Million Dollar Quartet), takes on the chipper, quirkier persona of Willie Nelson. And he captures the reedy, nasal quality of that distinctive voice and sweet-and-sour style. As Waylon Jennings (“the biggest rebel of them all,” declares the narrator without explanation), Duane Steele wraps great country pipes around the songs with ease.
“He just couldn’t hang on to his women,” says the narrator cheerfully of Jennings. Or was it just that he “was feeding his soul on experiences he could write about”? The narrator is amused. Thanks to MacPherson, the narrative glue that sticks Nashville Outlaws together has a certain sense of humour as it bounces between off-the-rack adulation, biographical snippets, poetic clichés like “his fire burned out,” and teasing provocations.
Intermittent interplay between the narrator and the “characters” is part of the show. “What could go wrong?” she wonders, just before the IRS hands Nelson a tab for $16 million in back taxes, or Cash checks into the Betty Ford and gets dried out. or Jennings gets diabetes and loses a foot. “Don’t worry about me; I can still kick ass,” the super-star assures us.
That rhythm is captured, too, in Carmon Arlett’s set, an atmospheric saloon with a decorative cannabis flag, Southern flags, and a giant Jack Daniels bottle. And the hits roll out — Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk The Line, On The Road Again, Good-Hearted Woman, Luckenbach Texas and the rest — under a fascinating projection-scape of real-life black-and-white shots of the three designed by Matt Schuurman.
You’ll see Cash, Jennings and Nelson as little kids (they’re all adorable), and the former, the most photogenic of the three apparently, in concert at San Quentin. You’ll even see an unnerving shot of him smiling.
As always, the music and sound quality in Mayfield revues is top-notch; the opening night audience was pumped. I would leave more detailed assessments to true country music aficionados. But from the theatrical point of view, the thought of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings as carousing roommates, the former making biscuits, seems like a missed opportunity for a comedy sketch. Just saying.
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre
Written and compiled by: Will Marks and Sara-Jeanne Hosie
Directed by: Van Wilmott
Starring: Melissa MacPherson, Jefferson McDonald, Roman Pfob, Duane Steele
Running: through April 3
Tickets and COVID protocols: mayfieldtheatre.ca