High School Confidential
I was worried as I settled down to watch Born to Be Loud. I'd invited a 26-year-old friend along, and I couldn't help noticing that the audience was rather, well, elderly. On weekends, the Heritage Square Music Hall audience includes people of many types and ages -- young couples, families with kids, bearded and blue-jeaned mountain folk, high school students, the occasional guy in a suit. But this was Wednesday, and the clientele seemed far more subdued. N. Randall Johnson was pounding out his usual ragtimey welcome -- "This Joint Is Jumpin'" -- and the lady next to us was swinging her shoulders, but I could tell things weren't jumping for my friend John. I cringed as T.J. Mullin launched into his usual good-humored round of birthday acknowledgments, complete with jokes about how young the birthday celebrant was. When Mullin and co-star Annie Dwyer took the stage as a pair of grown-up siblings returning for a high school reunion, the dialogue sounded a little stilted; John looked bemused. I prepared to apologize later.
But once Dwyer and Mullin took up their younger roles, somehow everything kicked into gear. Maybe the performers were fully warmed up; I'm certain the audience was. Dwyer's sported the same teenage persona in every one of the Music Hall's Loud productions (there have been five in the series), and she's one riveting girl. She focuses like a laser on some hapless man in the audience, proclaims that this is her faithless boyfriend Bobby Lee, and proceeds to nag, rage, whine, bully, snap her gum and insult the man's date -- returning to him again and again over the course of the evening -- until he admits that he loves her. She covers his face with greasy crimson kisses, curls his hair into a pair of horns, steals his drink, sits on his lap, does any insane action that enters her mind. It's outrageous, and it's also outrageously funny. Because we were sitting close to the stage, in the danger zone, Dwyer had John's full attention. "Glad she's sticking to that other guy," he muttered, trying to make himself invisible (which isn't easy when you're 6' 4").
Born to Be Loud consists of a string of songs from the late 1950s to the '80s; they're stitched together with all kinds of humor and hokum, as well as a very thin plot in which the now-adult Mullin and Dwyer reminisce about their school days. Annie and Bobby Lee have settled down, and their son is about to graduate -- although it's hard and a little disappointing to imagine this relationship maturing. Some songs are sung straight, some satirized, some clearly intended as an homage to a particular band or performer.
What amazed me was that the entire group could be simultaneously funny and musically impressive. They can also be quite serious. Wearing a gold lamé suit, Alex Crawford delivers MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This," shooting the audience cynical looks between raucously belted-out phrases. Accompanied by the group and playing bass, Mullin gives "Every Step You Take" a solemnly touching rendition, and Renato Lunnon is equally serious and effective impersonating James Taylor for "You've Got a Friend." Dwyer's voice is strong, rich and full; when she takes on Tina Turner, you're torn between appreciating the sound and giggling at Lunnon, Mullin and Rory Pierce, who, clad in long black wigs and short black dresses, provide hilariously sober-eyed backup. One of the evening's funniest moments comes when Johnette Toye sings the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love," manipulating a pair of dummies wearing long black gloves.
"Okay, that was definitely a good time," John allowed as we headed back to the car. He'd be happy to visit Heritage Square again. But next time, no seats in the danger zone.
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