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Arts and Entertainment Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019 1 week ago

When 'Outlaws and Angels' takes the stage, it's all good

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Florida Studio Theatre revue tips its hat to the saints and sinners who transformed American country music
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

“Outlaws and Angels” was a Florida Studio Theatre cabaret production from 2008. The original country music revue was the brainchild of Richard and Rebecca Hopkins and arranger Jim Prosser. The show’s creators evidently decided to make lighting strike twice; a new batch of angels and outlaws is back on the FST stage.

It’s a retooled revue, with the same core concept. The hook? Back in the 1950s and ’60s, country music was getting commercialized, lame and tame. Think “Hee-Haw.” Think “Grand Ol’ Opry.” Squeaky clean and G-rated.

A few bad boys played a different tune. Outlaws like Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson and Merle Haggard got back to country music’s raunchy roots. They hit the airwaves with toe-tapping songs about adultery, prison, hard drinking and murder. Good times! These devil-may-care dudes were more than matched by angelic singers like Dolly Parton and June Carter Cash, who leaned into the boy’s club of country music.

FST’s current band showcases six amazing talents. Joe Casey plays a mean guitar, and he’s smack-dab in Johnny Cash’s deep vocal register. He nails it on songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire.”

Outlaw or Angel? Madalyn McHugh exudes a little of both onstage. (Matthew Holler)

Nick Lerangis is another guitar hero, who self-consciously fits the mold of a ladies’ man, hilariously spoofing that stuck-up persona in “It’s Hard to Be Humble.” On numbers like “Desperado” and “Jambalaya,” he doesn’t play it for laughs.

Rosie Webber is a heavenly vocalist and a keyboard wizard who plucks the audience’s heartstrings on Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors.” She spreads her wings in a clever duet with Casey, which turns “The Wild Side of Life” and “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” into a call-and-response between man and woman.

Madalyn McHugh combines her own celestial vocals with a sultry star quality. She sizzles in a duet with Lerangis on “If I Were a Carpenter.”

J Vance is a keen drummer and guitarist. He sings his heart out on “Hey Good Lookin’” (aimed at McHugh, as I recall).

Fiddle player Cat Patterson is the show’s secret weapon. They hide her backstage for most of the first act. Then she finally appears and burns up the stage on “The Devil Came Down to Georgia” and “I Feel a Sin Coming On.”

Cat Patterson plays a mean fiddle in "the Devil Came Down to Georgia." (Matthew Holler)

The band has talent, chemistry and authenticity. They sing from the heart. You never feel like they’re phoning it in. Catherine Randazzo directs these talents with a heartfelt sense of country music’s soul. These songs are musical dynamite. She steps back and lets the fine performers light the fuse.

Prosser’s arrangements walk the line between part and whole. The individual songs don’t feel sliced and diced. But they flow into each other seamlessly and always serve the show. The Hopkins’ narrative thread does, too. The musical history lesson never upstages the music itself. The musicians’ playful, flirtatious, competitive banter never feels forced. Susan Angermann’s costumes give a nod to country music’s pop-culture packaging. (Casey’s dressed in black, of course.)

This isn’t a jukebox musical. There’s no big story. But each country song works beautifully as a self-contained short story. Heavenly or hellish, it’s damn good storytelling. Damn good music, too. Even if country’s not your cup of tea, you’re going to like it.

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