Thursday, April 29, 1999

'Strings' joins new musical tradition




BY JACKIE DEMALINE
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Don't look now, but the radio people (a k a adult baby boomers) are invading musical theater.

IF YOU GO
  • What: Appalachian Strings.
  • When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through May 29.
  • Where: Playhouse in the Park Marx Theatre, Eden Park.
  • Tickets: $28-$40. Any unreserved seats are half-price day of show when purchased 11 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Playhouse box office or Tower Tix in Tower Place Mall. 421-3888.
        In the beginning there were the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, rockin' out in Smokey Joe's Cafe (still running strong on Broadway and on tour). Now there's Footloose, too. Paul Simon tried Capeman. It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues just opened, and Keith Glover and Keb' Mo's Thunder Knocking on the Door is on its way to Broadway.

        Goodbye, Dolly!

        Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman don't think Appalachian Strings — their patchwork of stories, songs and danceopening tonight at Playhouse in the Park — is meant for Broadway, although the show has been successful on the regional theater circuit.

        Appalachian Strings is arguably part of a larger trend of musical theater moving away from traditional Broadway songwriting. These are shows written by and for boomers who grew up sampling rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, folk, jazz and world music on the radio.

        Now those boomers are grown-ups with jobs. They are potential theater audiences, that is if the theater is playing something they want to see — and hear.

        Mr. Myler and Mr. Wheetman are in the middle of the trend that has its origins in the professional regional theaters that dot the U.S. map.

        These days they're both commuting between Cincinnati and New York. Mr. Myler directed Strings while he was overseeing Monday's Broadway opening of their other revue, It Ain't Nothing But the Blues. Mr. Wheetman will perform in Blues and is keeping an eye on the off-Broadway opening (May 6) of The Cider House Rules, for which he wrote the music.

        Mr. Myler is also co-creator of Love, Janis (as in Joplin), another show that's been developed at regional theaters and seems destined for New York, and Lost Highway, a musicalabout Hank Williams and his music.

        Mr. Myler isn't a musician or a composer. He's just a California kid from the boomer era who grew up loving music. Mr. Wheetman loves the music and plays the music, preferably roots music. He's also California-raised. He grew up playing banjo, guitar, harmonica, penny whistle, dobro — a lot of the instruments that show up in Strings. He also has a taste for “ethnomusicology.”

        They met in 1985 when Mr. Myler was directing and Mr. Wheetman was playing in the band Quilters. They kept having these conversations about topics that wanted to have life on a stage.

        For Mr. Myler, the shows have grown out of each other. When he was writing Lost Highway, there was a street musician character who was just a passing role but a big influence on Hank Williams. “I thought, "There's a whole show in this guy' ” and so was born Broadway's new Blues.

        Blues includes a “tip of the hat to Appalachian music as a white offspring. And there was clearly a whole show about music and the mountains.”

        Appalachian Strings is, for the co-creators, an “oral history” of the Appalachian region. There are the songs, but there are the stories, too, many culled from the Smithsonian Institute's Folk Life Center. The songs called for the stories, Mr. Myler says. “You couldn't separate one from t'other.”

        It's about, they say, how the music was brought from Scotland and Ireland, how it survived, how people sing, why they sing when life is so hard. “They are a hard-working, defiant, courageous people,” Mr. Wheetman says. Mr. Myler adds, “The show's strength is meeting these people on stage.”

        Strings has more than 30 songs — ballads, hymns, jigs, reels — performed by a cast that includes Molly Andrews, a veteran of National Public Radio's Mountain Stage and E-Town.

        Their next project, when they find the time, may just be a “whole show about coal mining,” Mr. Myler speculates. At the moment, he's deep into research about a show based on the Vietnam Memorial, and Mr. Wheetman is on Broadway.



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