King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story

Michael Van Duzer

Roger Miller was an American original. A gift for catchy melodies and singularly quirky lyrics lifted him from a hardscrabble childhood picking cotton to a television show on NBC in the mid-1960’s. His offhand wit was genial and always surprising. But the laughs were a shield. His professional life was marred by his lack of discipline and substance abuse, while his personal life remained haphazard until he married his third wife.

The juxtaposition of Miller’s mostly light-hearted music and the very real drama of his life could certainly create an interesting musical. Unfortunately, King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story, is currently far from achieving that goal.

What this world premiere production at the Laguna Playhouse does have right is the music. Under Omar D. Brancato’s savvy musical direction, Miller’s songs radiate a raucous energy as well as his trademark self-deprecating humor. What is truly amazing is how fresh even the novelty numbers sound.

Jesse Johnson is ideal casting for Miller. Without attempting an impersonation, he captures Miller’s essence: his down-home style, his idiosyncratic flourishes, and his seemingly improvised wisecracking patter. More conventionally handsome than Miller, Johnson embodies a weary charm that shows why men enjoyed his company, and women enjoyed… other things.

The problematic book for the show is by Cort Casady and Miller’s widow, Mary Arnold Miller. As with many previous bio shows, the writers include too many incidents, with the result that all of them feel cursory.

The basic format places the first act during a taping of Miller’s TV show, and the second, during a concert late in his life. The choice to make all the songs diegetic is sensible, as finding dramatic situations which might logically include “Do Wacka Do,” or “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd,” would be stretching credulity, even for Miller.

Casady and Miller also introduce a Young Roger (Braxton Baker), who enacts a few short scenes that present Miller as a restless dreamer. From there, the book scenes skim over the important incidents in Miller’s life-- going to war, first wife, feckless Roger, second wife, etc. The scenes are more reportage than drama and offer neither character insight nor depth, so they don’t allow us to know or care about the people surrounding Miller.

Once Young Roger’s dramatic role is completed, he spends the rest of the show popping up in Roger’s dressing room to chide him about not living up to his potential, and to go over exposition they both already know. Baker does his best to enliven his cliché-ridden dialog and unveils a sweet voice that is put to particularly good use in “Waiting for the Light to Shine” from Miller’s only score for the stage, Big River.

Lindsey Alley and Brittney Bertier are kept busy playing every woman in Roger’s life, as well as his back-up singers. The ladies do what they can, despite some bad wigs, but, aside from Bertier’s sympathetic Mary, the female characters remain one-dimensional props.

Director Andrew Barnicle keeps the plot points coherent and doesn’t allow the book scenes to slow the show’s pacing or distract too much from the music. Less realistic sets than those designed by Jim Prodger might better serve the many scene shifts.

While the book is uninspired, King of the Road features crackerjack musicians, a terrific performance by Jesse Johnson, and nearly 20 dynamic musical numbers which reveal the range of Miller’s unique brand of songwriting.

Laguna Playhouse    April 23 – May 14, 2017