For the opening of its 40th season, TheatreWorks is presenting the world premiere of Tinyard Hill at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto. Set in 1964 Georgia, the four-person musical spends a tumultuous summer with a father-and-son blacksmith team and their busybody next-door neighbor, whose niece is in town to be fitted for her wedding dress.
The dressmaking auntie, May Bell Whitehead (Allison Briner), knows everybody, everybody's business, and bakes pie after irresistible pie. Her alcoholic husband, who spent years hounding her for kinky sex, has just walked out on their childless marriage. May Bell's white-trash neighbor, Russell Kingsley (James Moye), is a gruff, no-nonsense widower of five years. He's set in his old-school smithy ways, or so he'd have us believe. His handsome 18-year-old son, David (Chris Critelli) is a young man with big plans who's frustrated working for his visionless dad. He's ready for a change. And the blushing bride? Aileen Garrett (Melissa WolfKlain) is an attractive 18-year-old city girl from Manhattan. She's engaged to a 30-year-old psychiatrist, but this summer in the country is causing her to reassess. What on earth has she gotten herself into?
Guess what happens when the two kids meet? If you said "they'll despise each other at first, but only so the play can have an arc for the love story that follows," you win a pair of tickets to the Dooley County Fair. Guess what happens to their elders and you win one of May Bell's pies.
The writers, Tommy Newman and Mark Allen, balance the Red State cliché characters and sappy lyrics ("a blacksmith's work is never done," the actors actually sing) with just enough Blue State twists to keep things palatable for liberal-leaning audiences. The music has that punchy Broadway sound, the performance by the live band is spirited and tight, and the voices, especially the men's, are rich and strong.
But Tinyard Hill seems a rather un-ambitious choice to kick off a season, especially when the musical is also being billed as the "centerpiece" of the peninsula company's 8th Annual New Works Festival. For the record, I had a great deal of sympathy for David's situation -- he's like a few other draft-age males I knew during the Vietnam era who questioned the morality of not serving because you didn't agree with the war or could somehow weasel your way out of it. But the ride to the play's dénouement is sparing with the surprises, and by the second act, loose threads are tied up way too conveniently and hurriedly.
TheatreWorks's production of Tinyard Hill runs through August 16, 2009 at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto. For tickets and information, visit theatreworks.org.