Heavenly Country

Grimes, Shald. Photo by David Sprague.

On Broadway, a new country-flavored musical called SHUCKED is currently in previews. Closer to home, the world premiere of HEAVENLY COUNTRY, a jukebox country-western musical, is running at the Two Roads Theater in NoHo.  SHUCKED is a broad comedy with a new score by Grammy Award winning songwriters. HEAVENLY COUNTRY attempts to tell a love story, offer a cautionary tale of addiction and  redemption, all sandwiched in between 20-plus country and gospel numbers. It’s a tall order that first-time playwright Joel Russell doesn’t manage.

Minnesota transplant Nemo Slavikozlowski (Michael Reese Shald) has moved to Texas to fulfill his dream of living the cowboy life. Currently, that means working for a moving service during the day while drinking and singing karaoke nightly with his boss, Albert Ross (Ray Buffer) and his co-worker, Danny Morris (Isabella Urdaneta). He meets Lily L’Amoreaux (Jennifer Anne Grimes) at his next job, but their insta-love is threatened by her fears about his drinking, fears she shares with her scripture-quoting Pastor (Ashton Jordaa’n Ruiz) and his wife (Felicia Taylor E.) who pray with her. Drunk on the job, Nemo destroys a family heirloom of Lily’s, and he leaves town in time for the intermission.

Most jukebox musicals are either biographical or comic romances. With the former, the audience goes in already knowing something about the subject and is eager to hear their songs. With the latter, the songs are hung on a familiar plot and don’t need to carry the weight of telling the story as the songs must in a conventional musical. HEAVENLY COUNTRY’s heavier subject matter loses focus and any chance of dramatic credibility when so many extraneous songs continuously interrupt the plot.

Shald and Buffer have the strongest voices in the show and manage to put their songs over despite the unbalanced musical tracks that drown out the rest of the cast. The performances are certainly earnest but remain tentative. Director L. Flint Esquerra hasn’t done much to help his actors find convincing characters or fluid blocking. Even the boxes the moving crew are supposedly sweating over are too obviously empty.

HEAVENLY COUNTRY is a show with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, it doesn’t realize any of them.

Two Roads Theare    March 24 – April 22, 2023