Rex Knowles and Will Sturtevant bring to New York, That Other Woman’s Child, a bluegrass musical written by Sherry Landrum and George S. Clinton. Fresh from its world premiere with Chattanooga State Repertory Theatre, That Other Woman’s Child, presented at 37 Arts as part of The New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), yields a beautifully designed and well-executed production of the southern Kentucky bluegrass cultural experience in a modern context. With a live fiddle-playing, washboard percussion, guitar-twanging band that crosses the musician/actor divide, and The Great Kentucky Knobs, who initiate the hoofing, contra-dance style chorus numbers, That Other Woman’s Child stirs up musical comedy rooted in American heritage.
Initially reminiscent of the musical drama Oklahoma with a rustic farmhouse set, a sweeping southern sunset, and a spoon-player in place of the butter-churning woman to open the show, it quickly shifts to musical comedy with the chorus song and dance, She’s Comin’, to reveal the giddy exposition. This new bluegrass musical appears to mix genres: a satirical riff on the 1940s-50s musical comedies in its themes of politics, religion, marriage, independence, and foreign intrusion; but a sincere sentimentality about the themes of family and the farm. The strength of this modern musical is in its high style approach to the dramatics and not necessarily the simple themes and plot. At times, particularly in Act II, the structure is lost in multiple plots, instead of subplots, and in an underdeveloped climax. With crafted performances of the archetypical characters and music and choreography that are culturally specific, That Other Woman’s Child delivers hearty laughs and relatable content with southern charm.
The musical opens with the spoon-player prologue into the expositional chorus number, She’s Comin’, at the end of which Dawn from L.A., “that other woman’s child,” arrives knocking at the Kentucky Hanover farmhouse door. Within Family Guilt and Southern Shame, a country song with a bluesy bass, it’s evident that Dawn will be challenged to win her place in this family and that the Hanovers and the Knobs live under blood-oath to dictator Granny, represented by the organ resounding ominously from above. The musical score carries the plot and in most of its lyrics, a subtext of humorous irony, wit, and sarcasm. Of particular note in Act I, Please Tell Me What To Do, Lord, is a gospel hymn sung in chorus harmony about putting out the “flame” of the devil, but in context, the hearth is smelting their gathering and they are burning up from the heat. The Hanover and Knob families are even named after books in the Bible. Song of Solomon, pregnant with her sixth child, seductively sings Honeysuckle, a folk ballad, to Leviticus Numbers, metaphorically using honeysuckle to talk about sex and being duped. At the end of Act I, Corinthianne and Peter Hale sing a duet, True Partners, with a reel flare and the square-dancing choreography to match. The lyrics are sweet and simple, but melodically reflect the musical intonations perfectly.
By Act II, we’re setup up to witness the fall of the farm and a confrontation with Granny. Act II unveils The Legend of Granny Loomis, reminiscent of Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat from Guys and Dolls, complete with family storytelling for Dawn’s benefit, and a reveal of the conflict with Granny. Four Hands on the Plow is a modern country love song with metaphorical lyrics for marriage wedded to the musical score and The Wedding artfully crafts the end of the musical comedy into a humorous contra-dance resolution.
The production of That Other Woman’s Child, written by Sherry Landrum and George S. Clinton, delivers a heartfelt bluegrass musical score with a complimentary seasoned and witty country libretto. Act I layers the plotlines and the southern archetypes, but Act II does not achieve the dramatic conflict to sustain the falling action, nor the foils of characters to draw attention away from the plot and onto the characters. That Other Woman’s Child directed by Sherry Landrum, musical directed by David Libby, and choreographed by Mark Knowles, succeeds in its high style southern dramatization of musical comedy.
The southern Kentucky bluegrass culture deftly comes alive, through this casts proficiency at the archetypical characters. Andrea A. McCullough,* scuttles nimbly around the farmhouse kitchen in her terrycloth bathrobe and bobby-pinned grey hair as Granny Loomis Hanover, the hard-edged, grand-matriarchal tyrant of the Hanover family. Warren Kelley* shuffles with hunched shoulders and humorously disenchanted gripes throughout the play as Double Bob Knob, the family housekeeper. Kelley committed high style comedic facial gestures to the relatively silent role with skillful execution. Tina Marie Casamento* as mother, Aurora, and Allan Ledford as preacher and patriarch, Matthew Mark, through their fixed physical demeanor and emphatic intonations, create a steadfast religious couple of resolute devotion to their family. Mary Mossberg,* as Dawn Hanover, with her neatly combed red hair, pressed business suit, and blackberry, plays the daughter of the “other woman” in California. As the L.A. Public Relations firm owner, Mossberg effectively struts with a charismatic, lofty air upon her entrance, but in her love interest with Luke John, played by Don Noble,* she candidly relaxes her physical tension and breaks the boundaries of city and country with her compelling voice. Don Noble plays the Hanover farm’s caretaker with a grounded, earthly quality that counters Mossberg’s stereotypically “business woman” persona. Noble delivers a robust vocal timbre that impeccably fits the country music duets with Mossberg. Quinn VanAntwerp* lyrically croons a 1950s-esque country rock star Jimmy John. His lilting chords in All About Mama are evocative and sentimental. Other cast members included: Canedy Knowles* as Corinthianne, Dave Schoonover* as Leviticus Numbers, Maria Sager as the understudy replaced Erin Parker as Song of Solomon for the night, Whit Baldwin* as Peter Hale and Christian Mansfield* as Deuteronomy. The chorus of Great Kentucky Knobs as the trailer-trash Hanover in-laws included: Brandon Michael Arrington*, Sabrina Cohen, Lindsay Fussell, Kelsey Griffith, Candice Guardin*, Drew Little*, Anthony Palencsar*, Paul Reid, Kate Roth*, Maria Sager, Amy Shure*. The Great Kentucky Knob Band is comprised of: Eric Scott Anthony*, Bob Green, Jessie Knowles (spoons, washboard, saw, dancing man), Rex Knowles*, David Libby, and Roman Penney.
That Other Woman’s Child New York production also features scenic design by Lino Toyos, costume design by Brenda Schwab, lighting design by Annmarie Duggan, and sound design by Tom Goddard. Particularly noteworthy are the scenic design and the costume design. Toyos has extracted the essence of the archetypical southern farm as seen in Oklahoma and other traditional plays and musicals and fragmented it into beautifully crafted representative elements onstage. A large, thickly slatted wooden table and benches next to the antiqued stone hearth and the rustically beaten screen door define the Hanover kitchen. Outside, there’s a section of a flower garden, the rear of a cow in a barn, and the ever-present open skyline. Schwab has blended traditional south with modern equivalents in the costumes. Floral print dresses, the rancher cowboy boots and hat, the terrycloth bathrobe, the white shirt and suspendered pants, and the Texan dress shirt and tight jeans, ala Johnny Cash, shape the ambience and cultural tone of the production. Schwab also cleverly matches genealogical lines in the costuming of Granny, mother, Aurora, and daughter, Corinthianne in Act II as we see roles evolving.
In a period when the American culture is in political turmoil and society is searching for both, a sense of understanding, and a sense of humor, That Other Woman’s Child turns us back to our American heritage. Liberating us with hearty laughs, southern charm, and bluegrass music, Sherry Landrum and George S. Clinton have crafted a satirical modern musical comedy that pokes fun at the traditional structures, while rooting us in the values of home and family.