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Review: Country classics get fun staging in 'Angels'

MERCED — Playhouse Merced's "Honky Tonk Angels," the first local show of the new year, features a hit parade of classic country songs designed to please every taste.

The upbeat musical revue has sweet numbers about mama, church and the front porch swing, as well as rowdy rockers about drinking, partying and making lovers jealous. Most were recorded between the 1960s and the 1980s by big stars including Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tanya Tucker.

The songs are so catchy that you'llbe tempted to sing along with talented performers Dianne Kocher, Nancy O'Bryan and Paige McDonnell, who play the title characters. More than a few audience members at Sunday's matinee performance did just that.

Director Lars Tatom makes sure there are other chances for the audience to get involved by having theactresses periodically stroll through the theater. If you're a man and you don't want to dance on stage, avoid the aisles.

Written by Ted Swindley ("Always ... Patsy Cline"), "Honky Tonk Angels" premièred in 1998 in Tulsa, Okla., and has been performed all over the country. Though it's mostly about the music, the production does have a plot, thin as it may be.

Three very different women meet on a Greyhound bus bound for Nashville and decide to form a country group. Angela (Kocher) is a frustrated Texas housewife and mother of six, Sue Ellen (O'Bryan) is a twice-divorced Texas native who works as a secretary in Los Angeles, and Darlene (McDonnell) is an innocent farm girl from Mississippi.

The script is sprinkled with jokes that may make some groan. For example, instead of saying, "Without further ado," before they perform, the girls say, "Without further hairdo."

Musical director and pianist Joel Scott Shade expertly leads the onstage five-piece band, while Randy J. McMullen, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, provides clever rotating sets and costume designer Dawn Marks contributes the matching cowgirl outfits.

Kocher, a newcomer to the playhouse who recently moved to the area from Pasadena, delivers a hilarious rendition of "Harper Valley PTA" wearing a towering beehive. She also gives spirited performances of frank songs like "Don't Come Home A Drinkin'," "Barroom Habits" and "The Pill" (sample lyric: "This old maternity dress I've got is goin' in the garbage/ The clothes I'm wearin' from now on won't take up so much yardage ... since I've got the pill").

O'Bryan, who played Patsy Cline in both "Always... Patsy Cline" and "A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline" at the playhouse, has fun scolding the men in the audience with "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" and impersonating an Egyptian queen in "Cleopatra, Queen of Denial." With her lively steps, she also demonstrates she is a talented choreographer.

McDonnell's smooth, mellow vocals fit well with her ballads, including "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Ode to Billy Joe."

All three cast members have golden vocal cords and sound equally good whether they are singing solos or blending in harmony. If you love classic country music, you won't want to miss these boots-wearing dreamgirls.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at lmillegan@modbee.com or 578-2313.

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