There ain’t no harps in Paradise. Just fiddles and banjos and a foot-stompin’ good time. At least that’s Bill Robertson, Tom Sage, and Cliff Wagner’s version of it. The three writers, plus Wagner’s honky tonk band, the Old #7, have created a bluegrass musical comedy that will knock your socks off.
The action takes place in Paradise, a small town that’s gone all to hell since the coal mine shut down. But that’s not enough to keep the townspeople from singing and dancing at every opportunity. And there’s plenty of opportunity: 15 original songs that range from pseudo-religious (“Greater Than Thou”) to comic (“Hillbillies”) to romantic (“Same Old Me”) to motivational (“You Won’t Get Out Alive”) to hilariously naughty (“Mine Is Bigger”). And a runaway show-stopping tap dance by Tater Gayheart (Elijah Rock), the black son of the white mayor (a dynamic Jason Rowland). Enter the “villains”: a demonically ambitious television producer (Marie-Francoise Theodore) who wants to capitalize on the town’s diminishing fortunes by making it the focus of a reality TV show, and a fast-talking preacher, the Rev. John Cyrus Mountain (a crafty but charming Jonathan Root) who wants to build a mega-church that will bring visitors and prosperity to the town. (He also wants to build a Walmart-like emporium called “Jesus Christ Super-Store,” but that’s another story.) Mountain brings with him his tacky but well-intentioned “Muse”, Chastity Jones (Nina Brissey), who furthers his religious message by belting out a blatantly provocative number called “Jesus is Deep Inside Me.” Resisting these potential changes is Louanne Knight (Rachel Noll), the owner of the small local store and the most respected woman in town. She understands the damage that can be done by the sudden acquisition of fame and riches and wants to keep the townspeople from such overwhelming temptations. But the preacher is all for this change in the town’s fortunes “from coal mine to prime time” and takes everyone by surprise by revealing that he is not who they think he is. It’s a wacky show, beautifully paced by director Dan Bonnell, with all sorts of twists and subplots, and thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. Not the least of the enjoyment comes from the cluttered set designed by the team of designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz and master builder Cliff Wagner. Whether it reflects the items for sale in Louanne’s store, or represents the way of life of a small hillbilly town, it is replete with pots and pans, an old gas pump, Coca Cola signs, hub caps, a bed’s headboard, a quilt, and variously shaped copper cake pans. A motley, and perfect, collection. Paradise, a Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy, is currently having its world premiere at the Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Road, in Santa Monica. It will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2 through March 30th. For tickets call (310) 397-3244 or visit www.ruskingrouptheatre.com. Photo: Ed Rowland, Jonathan Root, and Elijah Rock Photo by Agnes Magyari