Known for his oft brutally honest, yet thoroughly thoughtful theatre reviews for Broadwayworld.com’s Nashville bureau, Jeffrey Ellis has also made quite a name for himself as the creator, producer and frequent host of annual celebrations of Middle Tennessee’s theatre community under the helm of his spectacular annual “First Night” honors and “Midwinter’s First Night” celebrations. Giving even more back to the community he loves so dearly, in recent years he’s made the occasional return to still more hands-on behind the scenes work as director, most notably in Circle Players’ 2015 cinema-worthy presentation of William Inge’s “Picnic”. Proving a penchant for Southern sensibilities, Ellis’ latest foray as director brings him to his debut partnership with The Larry Keeton Theatre as he helms playwright Beth Henley’s “The Miss Firecracker Contest”, which ends its three-week run at The Keeton (108 Donelson Pike, Nashville, TN 3724) with performances nightly thru Saturday, April 30.
“The Miss Firecracker Contest”, while not as well known as Henley’s earlier work, “Crimes of the Heart”, focuses on Carnelle Scott and her attempt to restore her reputation by taking home the crown in her small southern town’s annual beauty pageant taking place during the 4th of July. The play shares similarities with “Crimes” in that they’re both set in the South and features an array of dysfunctional family members familiar to anyone who’s ever uttered the word “y’all”.
While Henley’s original production of “Firecracker” made it’s debut in 1980, Ellis has turned back the clock to 1974 for his presentation at the Keeton. Why 1974? During a brief chat with Ellis just prior to the show’s opening weekend, Ellis revealed that 1974 was a special year to him because that’s was his senior year of high school. Interestingly, 1974 was also the year playwright Henley’s debut work, “Am I Blue”, the first of six plays set in the South, was first performed onstage. Astute audience members will no doubt pick up on the mid-seventies vibe, if not from the decidedly ruffled and jersey knit wardrobe of the show’s leading ladies, then certainly from the incidental music Ellis has peppered throughout the show during scenes and set changes. Heck, even I remember my older brother feeding quarter after quarter into the jukebox on the pool deck at Ruskin Cave just to hear Terry Jack’s #1 1974 hit “Seasons in the Sun” over and over.
Setting the play in the mid-70s is a stroke of genius on Ellis’ part. By backdating Henley’s southern gothic tale of familial dysfunction, Ellis creates a wonderful juxtaposition of a young woman struggling to find herself and torn between the social morals of the time, the still new-found voice of women’s lib and the now-almost laughable prestige once placed upon young southern women who achieved greatness within the world of local beauty pageants.
Following a brief snipped of Leann Rimes’ 2011 cover of Freddy Fender’s 1974 hit “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights”, Ellis’ “The Miss Firecracker Contest” opens with Carnelle Scott (Britt Byrd) deep in concentration, practicing the baton routine for her upcoming talent portion of titular beauty pageant. Britt Byrd, fresh from her role in Music City Theatre Company’s “4000 Miles” is simply a joy to watch as the conflicted Carnelle. want’s to make a name for herself in the small town where she’s developed a bit of a loose reputation. Anyone who happened to catch Byrd in “Cousin Cleetus’ Country Christmas” this past holiday season saw what might have been the genesis of her sweet southern childlike character, but chances are, there’s always been a bit of Carnell in Byrd, stemming from her childhood in nearby Pleasant View, Tennessee. In spite of a script that often falls short of the playwright’s more popular work, Byrd creates such an empathy-inducing Carnelle that by show’s end, the entire audience is rooting for her to take the crown.
Having first been seen on the Nashville stage as Morticia in Circle Player’s 2014 production of “The Addams Family”, Katherine Morgan perfectly embodies the facade of the successful and happy prim southern woman in her role as Carnelle’s cousin, Elain Rutledge. It’s not just her Dixie Carter-as-Julia Sugarbaker in “Designing Women” faux southern aristocrat languid speech pattern, it’s everything about her portrayal. Throughout the play, she steals laughs without even uttering a word as she orders her family about with a simply look and a ‘can’t be bothered’ waive of her hand.
Another scene-stealer comes in the form of longtime Keeton Theatre favorite, Amber Boyer, who plays Carnelle’s dimly sweet pageant seamstress, Popeye Jackson. As Popeye, Boyer isn’t just hemming Carnelle’s gowns and costumes, she’s also hoping to stitch together a bit of a romance for herself with Carnelle’s other cousin, Delmount Williams (Michael Adcock).
Adcock, who just wrapped as Huey Calhoun in Art Center of Cannon Country’s “Memphis: The Musical”, hams it up as the ne’er-do-well object of Popeye’s affections. Sounding more like more like Andy Griffith’s 80s-90s southern lawyer, “Matlock” than a period appropriate Andy Taylor, Adcock’s affected southern accent isn’t exactly the male equivalent of his on-stage sister Elain. Instead it comes across as boisterous and put-on, which fits perfectly in line with Delmount’s egotistical character.
Another great addition to the cast comes two-fold in Rebekah Stogner, who plays pageant coordinator, Tessy Mahoney. I say two-fold because, in true Ellis style, she also makes a quick appearance as her twin sister, as far as I was able to discern, a character not in Henley’s original script. Allowing Stogner (last seen in the Ellis-directed “Picnic” last year) to appear in the dual roles is simply a treat for the audience.
Rounding out the cast is Kurt Jarvis as Mac Sam, a syphilitic womanizer who’s just one of the reason’s Carnelle’s reputation has been sullied. Of Ellis’ cast, Jarvis is the one minor misstep. Not only is his fauxhawk pompadour not period-authentic, there just doesn’t seem to be any on-stage chemistry between him and his co-stars, so it’s hard to imagine why Carnelle would have been drawn to him to begin with.
That slight glitch aside, Ellis plays up the bests aspects of Henley’s original work and even peppers the laughs a bit with subtle but effective nuanced direction. You can’t help but notice things like Delmount making his entrance eating a can of Vienna sausages, or as anyone in my family calls then ‘Viennie Weenies’, or the fact that Popeye enjoys everything from popcorn to a bag of cotton candy (technically the 2000s era-Puffy Stuff, but I digress). Heck, even Elain offers up a canned ham to a hilariously silent visiting orphan–another Ellis addition. I asked Ellis about both the non-speaking orphan and the plethora of food and he offered this insight. “Food is funny”. As for the orphan girl, Ellis added it as a wink to the fact that early in the script it is mentioned that Elain does her bit for the needy by frequently inviting a less-fortunate child over for dinner.
With themes about popularity, social status and the ever-challenging, but totally unnecessary desire to rise above your raising, “The Miss Firecracker Contest” may not be Henley’s best work, but under the loving gaze of director Jeffrey Ellis, it definitely takes the crown of current offerings among the Nashville theatre scene.
“The Miss Firecracker Contest” concludes its three-week run at The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre with performances through Saturday, April 30. Dinner and Show tickets are $28 for Adults, $19 for children 12 and under and $25/per for groups of 10 or more. On Thursday, April 28, there’s a #TheatreThursday Show Only special of $10/per ticket. Friday and Saturday Show Only tickets are available for $15/Adults and $14/12 and under. Dinner seating begins nightly an hour before the 7 p.m. show. Click Here for tickets and more information. Next up at The Keeton will be “Thoroughly Modern Millie” with shows running June 9-June 25. Click Here for tickets.
If you’ve enjoyed this review of “The Miss Firecracker Contest”, be sure and click the ‘subscribe’ tab located near the close of this article to sign up for free email alerts whenever new Nashville Entertainment is published.