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a Musical
by Janece Shaffer (book) & Kristian Bush (songs)

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 5025

SHOWING : January 18, 2017 - February 12, 2017



In 1951 Nashville, Country music legend Billy Mason is on the eve of retirement. Can his soft-spoken son, Joe, step into the spotlight and carry on? When Joe joins forces with an unlikely pair — Inez, a budding singer/songwriter, and Izzy, a rodeo tailor on a mission — a revolution is born and Country music is changed forever. This feel-good romantic comedy by Atlanta’s Janece Shaffer ("The Geller Girls") with original music by Sugarland’s Kristian Bush is a world-premiere production not to be missed.

Director Susan V. Booth
Izzy Andrew Benator
Pooch/Jimmie Lollie Rob Lawhon
Ludee Feeback/Miss Kitty/Cora Bethany Anne Lind
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Is It a Musical or a Play with Music?
by playgoer
Saturday, February 4, 2017
"Troubadour" tells the story of how the son of a famous country singer gains self-confidence, with the help of a stage-shy songwriter and a pushy immigrant tailor, in the days leading up to his father’s retirement. Kristian Bush’s catchy songs appear in the script in spots where these musicians are trying out or performing a song. Mr. Bush went to New York on a short trip to become more familiar with mainstream Broadway musical theatre, and decided that "Troubadour" was something different. It was conceived by book-writer Janece Shaffer as a play with a few songs that developed into a play with a LOT of songs.

Does it function as a play in which the songs exist only how they might in real life? No. Some spots feature the well-worn trope of a person picking up a lyric sheet and instantaneously singing and harmonizing with a melody they have never previously heard. Country songs have famously been described as being defined by a limited three-chord harmonic structure, but instant singing from a lyric sheet stretches believability. Add in a final number that clearly functions as the curtain call encore of a piece of musical theatre, and the boundary between "play with music" and "musical" has clearly been breached.

There’s a tension between the music, which does a fine job of reflecting the milieu of 1951 country music, and the book, which attempts to tell its story through the broad strokes of characterization that Ms. Shaffer seems to feel is required of musical theatre. None of the major characters in the plot ring true, with the father a stock, Bible-quoting villain and the leading lady turning from shy wallflower to Grand Old Opry performer in the blink of an eye. There’s a kiss from a pretty woman to the tailor near the end of the first act that functions in the plot only as a way to heighten tension before intermission. The kiss seems unmotivated and goes nowhere, suggesting that the book had been in a state of flux before opening and hasn’t yet reached a satisfying final form.

The physical production is thoroughly professional, with Todd Rosenthal’s revolving set working well for all the locations indicated in the script (although having call letters WFNN on the unmoving sides and back of the set is a bit jarring for a scene taking place in the WGAL radio studio). Ken Yunker’s lighting design perhaps has a bit too much spill, allowing glimpses of action outside the focus of the scene, but it provides all the necessary effects and pulls out all the stops at the end of the show. Clay Benning’s sound design keeps things audible, although there was at least one occasion I noted in which reverb seemed to be added on the transition from speaking to singing, which broke the illusion of real life. Lex Liang’s costumes contain several stunners, easily suggesting the transition in country music production values from homespun clothing to sparkles and spangles and sequins.

Director Susan V. Booth hasn’t managed to resolve the character discrepancies in Ms. Shaffer’s book, and she hasn’t paid attention to all the details of the production. This is most clearly seen in the performances of the members of the onstage band, who obviously were cast based on musical skills rather than acting skills. When they’re in bright light onstage, their lack of expressiveness dampens the effect of dramatic scenes, and the sight of Brandon Bush sitting in a radio station booth to the side of the stage and viewing the action onstage as a spectator breaks the fifth wall (assuming there is an invisible wall between the action onstage and cast members offstage, as well as the invisible fourth wall between actors and audience).

Aside from the band, performances are good. Radney Foster, in the role of Billy Mason, a famous country singer, is obviously not a trained actor, but acquits himself fairly well, albeit with line bobbles and an occasional lack of projection. Zach Seabaugh is attractive, both vocally and physically, as his son, but pales next to the scintillatingly sympathetic and silver-voiced performance of Sylvie Davidson as a shy songwriter. Andrew Benator is agreeable as the tailor, but there’s little sense of an innate drive within his striving character that would explain his actions. The most astounding performances come from Rob Lawhon and Bethany Anne Lind, who each play two different onstage characters and are completely believable (and unrecognizable as the same actor) in each.

"Troubadour" delivers entertainment through its music and its performances. The plot is heavy-handed in its portrayal of a father attempting to quash the dreams of his progeny, and combines the cliché of a shy wallflower turning into a performer with the story of a Russian immigrant whose motivations and romantic life remain a mystery. A far stronger story could be created with these elements, but Susan V. Booth lets the production fizzle into a pallid feel-good comedy. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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