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FST's 'Troubadour' celebrates country music's reinvention

The sweet musical by Sugarland's Kristian Bush winds the clock back to Nashville in 1951.

Caleb Adams and Sarah Colt star in FST's "Troubadour," which runs through May 19 at the Gompertz Theatre.
Caleb Adams and Sarah Colt star in FST's "Troubadour," which runs through May 19 at the Gompertz Theatre.
Image courtesy of John Jones
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“Troubadour” sings a song of Nashville at Florida Studio Theatre. Not the city of Top 40 dreams in Robert Altman’s 1976 movie; the nascent Nashville of 1951. 

It’s the days of AM radio, the Grand Ole Opry and a new wave of country music created by soon-to-be legends like Hank Williams, Patti Page and Waylon Jennings. 

Kristian Bush’s songs in this show capture the electricity of their game-changing hits. The man knows what he’s doing. (He’s one half of the Sugarland country duo and a Grammy-winning singer/songwriter.) Playwright Janece Shaffer wrote the musical’s sharp script. She’s good, too.

Billy Mason (Scott Wakefield) is the show’s imaginary legend. Once upon a time, he was the “King of Country Music.” Now his body’s failing him, and he’s bowing off the stage. As “Troubadour” opens, he’s gearing up for a farewell concert at the Grand Ole Opry. 

Billy’s son Joe (Caleb Adams) will sing backup and stay in the shadows. Joe’s legendary father clearly passed on his looks and musical talent to his offspring. But Billy (either selfishly or selflessly) wants to keep his son out of the spotlight. 

A good-ole-boy DJ who goes by the name of “Pooch” (Kevin Bernard) wants Joe to sing a duet with his daddy — even if his daddy doesn’t. Speaking of wants: Inez (Sarah Colt), a wannabe country songwriter, dearly wants Joe to sing her tunes. She also wants Joe. (The feeling’s mutual.)

Izzy (Sheffield Chastain), a master tailor who fled Russia’s anti-Semitic persecution, wants Joe to wear his fancy shirts. After that, he wants to be Joe’s manager. 

Sexy Ludee Feeback (Deanna Ott) wants Joe to get the hell off the stage and out of her hip-shaking way. These folks can’t all get what they want. When the concert’s over and the music stops, something’s got to give. Or somebody.

Director Kate Alexander takes a sly, voyeur’s approach with these colorful personalities. On her stage, nothing feels staged. It’s like you’re spying on off-the-cuff, real-life conversations. (Coincidentally, this was Altman’s approach in directing “Nashville.”)

The actors have a blast with their characters. Wakefield’s Billy is deeply religious, and deeply troubled. Being a country music superstar never set right with him. Many of his songs are religious, but the music biz is still too darn secular, and being the “King of Country Music” stinks of the sin of pride. 

When Billy detects any sign of pride in Joe, he nips it in the bud. Adams’ Joe puts up with his put-downs. His character’s support for his father never wavers, even when the old man cuts him down. 

FST's "Troubadour" tells a tale of country music's transformation in the early 1950s.
Image courtesy of John Jones

Joe wants to make his father proud. But he also wants to make his own kind of music. Country music is his calling. When Billy asks Joe to give it up for the life of a preacher man, Joe finally stands up to him. 

Colt’s Inez is a bubbly force of nature. Inez is a brilliant performer, until somebody starts watching. But she gets over that stage fright. Her fear’s a surface emotion, and it doesn’t run deep. Inez knows she’s good. 

Colt’s good, too. Her singing is as good as it gets. (Colt and Adams’ characters have real romantic chemistry.)

Ott’s funny as Ludee, the brassy runaway beauty queen. Her character’s a second-tier musical talent. Ludee figures her looks will get her anywhere. (They have so far.) 

Izzy’s a die-hard survivor. Russia’s pogroms didn’t stop him. American prejudice doesn’t even slow him down. 

Bernard’s Pooch has a self-effacing, downhome persona as a radio DJ. Don’t be fooled. Beneath his character’s aw-shucks grin, the wheels of his mind are always turning. Bernard convinces you of his depths.

Singer, songwriter, tailor, DJ. Each in their own way, these characters are all artists. They’re also human — all too human. That’s a good thing. Until AI gets a wee bit better, the best art is still made by humans. That includes the art of country music.

The tunes in “Troubadour” happen naturally in the world of this musical. Like the humans who created them, they’re not born perfect. This musical puts their messy musical birth process on stage.

The FST band’s not perfect, put pretty darn close. Darren Server (this show’s music director) plays piano; Kroy Presley strums upright bass; Gary Grall makes his guitar sing.

They do a sizzling job with Bush’s songs like “American Original,” “Ice Cream and Lollipops” and “God Made Rhinestones.” They stay in the shadows for most of the time — then finally step into the spotlight.

Joe comes out of his father’s shadow, too. Izzy’s new clothes provide the magic. Once Joe puts on Izzy’s shimmering, multicolored, look-at-me duds, he takes a giant evolutionary leap to country music’s Rockabilly future. 

That leap cuts him off from his father. Billy hates his son’s new look. He calls it an “abomination.” Joe won’t go to Bible school; Joe thinks he’s in his father’s musical league; Joe won’t do as he’s told. 

Billy’s put up with all that. But Joe’s sinful new peacock style is the last straw. It’s why Billy won’t share his final stage with Joe at the Grand Old Opry. (Spoiler alert: A father-and-son reunion is their destiny.) Joe and Inez sing a duet too.

“Troubadour” is sweet, but not short. With 135 minutes to kill, this musical takes a rambling road. I’m guessing that’s a creative choice. This show treads familiar genre territory. (“A Mighty Wind” comes to mind.) 

A tighter run-time would’ve made its story beats predictable. Stretching it out makes the show more like a family visit. Expect to settle in, set a spell, dig the music, have a laugh and get to know the characters. Don’t expect to hit the road anytime soon.

Y’all come back now.



Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.

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