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02 Feb 2019

A Hoot of a Good Time: Coyote StageWorks Pays Tribute to Country-Western Music With 'Honky Tonk Laundry'

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Bets Malone and Misty Cotton in Coyote StageWorks' Honky Tonk Laundry. Bets Malone and Misty Cotton in Coyote StageWorks' Honky Tonk Laundry. Michael Lamont

Honky Tonk Laundry, presented by Coyote StageWorks, has boot-scooted into the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs.

Are you ready, darlin’? Because the laughter, the music, and the sheer fun of this production will gallop off with you to Nashville.

Yes, it’s a romp.

The Wishy Washy Washateria (!) is owned by the overworked Lana Mae Hopkins (Bets Malone), and she hires redheaded Katie Lane Murphy (Misty Cotton) to help her out. What ensues is plenty of chaos, country Western music, soapsuds—ؙand a few surprising cleaning hints). A two-woman show is a great rarity in theater, and these actresses know how to use their special stuff to make us appreciate their differences.

The author of this wild ride is Roger Bean, who also directed the play. It gives a satisfying cohesion to a show when it is created and then directed by the same person—the voice is stronger and clearer when another person doesn’t “interpret” the words of the other. Artistic director Chuck Yates has already treated his audiences to Bean’s work via The Andrews Brothers, a delightful Coyote StageWorks success back in 2014, written about entertainers in USO shows during World War II.

The set, created by Tom Buderwitz, is the aforementioned Wishy Washy Washateria, and center stage is dominated by four looming washer-dryers of industrial strength and lemon-colored ugliness. The always-subtle lighting, created by Moira Wilke, provides some excellent effects.

Lana Mae and Katie Lane both struggle in the relationships with their men—well of course! It’s a prerequisite for country Western music, y’all. Both Lana Mae’s husband, Earl, and Katie Lang’s sort-of boyfriend, Danny, we learn, are cads unworthy of these good women, so the stage is set for the girls to burst into frequent song expressing their feelings. They manage to mix up the standards we all know, such as “Stand by Your Man” and “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” with some new titles such as “I Need a Vacation” and “Potential New Boyfriend.” Yee haw!

Both of these belles get to strut through some entertaining choreography, designed by James Vasquez. He gives a line-dance feel to these steps, and the girls move smoothly through their dancing.

But what truly fascinates is one major characteristic of this kind of music: close harmony. In this show, both gals have chosen to use a hard-edged voice, holding the end-of-phrase notes with admirable breath control before segueing into their vibrato—and when they blend their voices together, the effect is magical. They merge their sounds perfectly, and the timing and their attacks on the notes is flawless. It is a breathtaking and too-rare experience in music. Brava, ladies!

Katie Lane and Lana Mae, both facing relationship ruin due to the “moral flexibility” of both their men and certain predatory females (whom we never meet), elect to comfort themselves and satisfy Lana’s unfulfilled ambitions by putting on a show. They choose to use the laundromat as their stage. This gives costume-designer Renetta Lloyd a chance to bedeck our heroines in classic faux-cowgirl-style boots plus crimson and white-trimmed skirt outfits. Oh … and keep an eye out for some outrageous second-act hair styles; they’re more fun than a rodeo.

The girls’ show pays tribute to many of the queens of country-Western music such as Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette. Even during the intermission. we are treated to famous songs by Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline. One of their showy numbers, in which Lana Mae and Katie Lane break out in yodeling—a mystifying skill if there ever was one—will leave you astonished.

The script features an endless barrage of charming country-fried sayings and intentionally adorable provincial slang. They inspired most of the play’s hearty laughs. There is some fancy cussin’ and a goodly amount of name-callin’, but the undercurrents of the solid values of these rural people permeate their songs with hints of gospel music and its beliefs, an influence never too far from country songs. Family is everything. Heartache is to be expected. But love can conquer all … and we’re all going to heaven. Yahoo!

Frankly, the show surprised on several levels. First, it is cute. Yes, cute … something it’s not possible to say about very many productions. You will leave the theater smiling, which also doesn’t happen that often, doggone it.

Second, you will definitely agree that these are two of the hardest-working actresses you have ever seen. Their handling of these vocally demanding songs is truly impressive—nearly entirely done using their chest tones, only sliding up into head tones on a rare couple of notes (and the yodeling). The energy level is relentlessly high, excepting maybe a ballad or two, one of which had some echo added to the sound—but these ladies sing and dance and banter and move almost constantly. They will lasso your heart.

Third, I had expected much more caricature—the names alone!—but Malone and Cotton turned in fairly realistic interpretations of these roles. Perhaps choosing over-exaggeration and outrageousness would have been the easy way out, if sometimes more hilarious. There is even a serious note injected into the script, with some pill-popping, drug abuse and drinking, about which nothing, alas, is funny, provoking, at best, some laughs borne out of shock. I guess it happens, even in country settings, but since it didn’t advance the plot, I couldn’t help wishing we had been spared this, as the current news about our opioid crisis has left us all so raw that it briefly depresses the energy level of the show.

Despite that, this is, as I say, a romp, and you will have a great time. On opening night, the theater rocked with satisfying belly laughs, and the actresses were awarded a joyous standing ovation.

And as Lana Mae and Katie Lane their ownselves might say: Dang! It don’t git better than that.

Honky Tonk Laundry, a production of Coyote Stageworks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Arts Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60, and the show runs two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

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