“Stand By Your Man” at The Ivoryton Playhouse
By Brooks Appelbaum
There are four reasons not to miss Stand By Your Man: The Tammy Wynette Story, running through April 5th at the Ivoryton Playhouse: Katie Barton (Tammy); Ben Hope (George Jones); director Sherry Lutken, who has guided her cast to natural and sincere performances, and the terrific actor/musicians who round out the ensemble.
Unfortunately, the book, by the usually marvelous Mark St. Germain, whose sparkling Dancing Lessons, at Hartford’s TheaterWorks, charmed all of Connecticut, does not do justice to these performers or to the Wynette story. Germain has said of his work, “Tammy’s music is about someone who is exposing her pain. You can track her life and what she felt from the songs she chose to sing.” This is just what he does, showing us Wynette’s life as a long flashback, told in brief scenes punctuated (and yes, illustrated) by wonderful songs. By using this approach, though, St. Germain neglects to structure a narrative with dramatic impact. Instead of a central and compelling drama (perhaps focused on the doomed love between Wynette and George Jones), St. Germain gives us a story that feels fragmented and ultimately unsatisfying.
Thank goodness, then, for the stunning performance of Katie Barton as Tammy. From the moment the lights reveal her, in concert, singing a few bars of “Stand By Your Man,” we are mesmerized by her sweetness, her vulnerability, her steely strength, and a voice that remarkably captures Wynette’s tear-drop catch and glorious power. Barton does not impersonate or Act (with the dreaded capital A) for one second. Her natural quality as an actress, combined with Tammy’s onstage charisma, captivates us for the entire show.
Matching Barton in this rare blend of natural performing style and concert-ready flare is Ben Hope as George Jones. Hope’s rich voice, his showmanship, and his palpable warmth make Jones’ hopeless battle with alcoholism a tragic sight. One can feel the depth of Wynette’s and Jones’ love for one another throughout their easy banter, their priceless duets, and their downward spiral. Perhaps the most moving moments in the show belong to the songs that seem to illustrate this union: “I Still Believe in Fairy Tales,” with its heartbreaking reference to “the dragon in the bottle,” and “’Til I Can Make it On My Own,” which Barton sings with a simple sorrow that makes us forget how many times we’ve heard it as a hit.
Each of the excellent musicians in the band also plays one major role, and this gives the production a special charm. Louis Tucci is wonderfully gruff as Billy Sherrill, head of Epic Records, who discovered Virginia Wynette Pugh and changed her name to Tammy Wynette. Morgan Morse makes us understand that Tammy’s first, hapless husband, Euple Byrd, never anticipated the fire lurking below the surface of his starry-eyed young bride. Jonathan Brown is an appropriately slimy Don Chapel, and Sam Sherwood brings sweet swagger to Burt Reynolds. As Tammy’s last husband, George Richey, Eric Scott Anthony implies controlling menace despite an under-developed role.
Sadly, the script forces any actress who plays Tammy’s mother, MeeMaw, to replace sincerity with a broad comic turn. St. Germain wants us invested in the mother-daughter relationship, but he’s written so many jokes and extended scenes in which MeeMaw provides the abrasive comic relief that we can’t take their relationship seriously. Marcy McGuigan, also a strong musician, is clearly capable of nuance, and we see this especially in a hospital waiting room scene, late in the play. She deserves better.
Serving the show beautifully are Musical Director David M. Lutken, Scenic Designer Daniel Nischan, Costume Designer Anya Sokolovskya, and Wig Designer Elizabeth Cipollina. The sound and lighting, by Tate R. Burmeister and Marcus Abbott, respectively, help to create the numerous settings and moods that support the musicians, Hope, and Barton.
Ultimately, Stand By Your Man is best thought of as a tribute and a concert, rather than a biography, and in that sense this production succeeds without question. I’m waiting for Katie Barton to record a cover album of Wynette’s songs. This good girl would definitely go bad to get her hands on that.