Backwater Blues a Rural Frolic

I’d like to introduce Paola Hornbuckle. Paola will be writing a review every week while I recover from a minor operation. She is a playwright, actress, and director and has written for several magazines in the past.

Backwater Blues is a remedy for your blues. A broken-down bus, a gay New York theatre troupe stuck in Toad Lake, Texas – a recipe for a drama, a comedy, or a musical? Add a lady sheriff with show biz blood, a starry-eyed young man trying to skip town and join the troupe and you have Backwater Blues in its world premiere at Compass Theatre. Tempers flare, secret love is exposed, and dreams are found in the most improbable of places. Texas.

Compass Theatre’s world premiere of Michael Thomas Tower’s and David M. Newcomer’s Backwater Blues will remind you just how good fishnet stockings, a jacket, and not much else, can look on a man. Directed by Lindsey Duoos Gearhart, it is a delightful musical that combines Appalachian country, traditional Broadway, and old-style Hollywood in its musical numbers with a light-hearted plot. The show is heavily laden with joyful songs and subtle, yet airtight, musical numbers. The tableaux-like dance numbers, along with the perpetual grins of the performers (who seem to be competing for who can show the cutest, brightest smile) brighten the stage almost as well as the excellent lighting.

After their tour bus breaks down, half the troupe is apprehended by the local sheriff (Grace Delaney) due to shoplifting by one of its members. The perpetrator, Rock (Anthony Simone) gets away from the sheriff and hides with the remaining stranded actors. The stressed leader of the delinquent theatre troupe, J.D. (Andy Collins), has to keep it all together, even as he is confronted by frustrated Marvin (Tom Doyle) of their secretive, unspoken love for each other. Fresh-faced Arnie (Shaun Tuazon) is a local young man with big dreams. He longs to join the theatre troupe, get away from the backwater town and run off to New York. Little does he know that within the theatre troupe is an old love, emotionally torn Joe (Trevor Bowles).

Andy Collins is rock-solid as the burdened JD, afraid to take a chance on love. Tom Doyle is a sensitive and effective Marvin, with just the right amount of pathos and comical flare. Both of these actors sing beautifully. Grace Delaney is hilarious as the bumbling Sheriff Fetch, taking the term “hick” to new heights. Shaun Tuazon as Arnie shines with wide-eyed innocence and an eager smile that just won’t quit. Anthony Simone portrays a troubled Rock with a light touch that still endears him to the audience. Trevor Bowles, the “straight” one struggling with his homosexual proclivities, is quietly effective as the taciturn Joe.

The show is very reminiscent of old-style Hollywood musicals. You half expect Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly to pop out at any moment. Characters talk about love and break into song with doe-eyed joyfulness often and well, and still, one does not tire of the cotton candy ensemble. Your attention never drops. It is refreshing to experience a gay-themed traditional musical since it’s not something you often catch on TCM or AMC. The predictability of the plot is offset by the unconventionality of the gay characters. At the same time, that’s part of the beauty of Backwater Blues. Whether gay or straight, in the big city, or backwater towns, people just want to love and be loved. This musical shines through with the simple innocence of that desire and inserts its contemporary gay characters into a traditional format. From the beginning of the show, whether you like it or not, a smile forms on your face that just won’t go away until you leave the theatre.

Suddenly, Toad Lake, Texas doesn’t seem so bad after all.

Backwater Blues is playing at Compass Thatre,3704 Sixth Avenue, San Diego, CA, and runs Sunday through Wednesday at 7:30 p.m to November 26, 2008. For reservations call 619-688-9210

Critic: Paola Hornbuckle

From Hitch: I had the opportunity of seeing this new musical. While it is still a work-in-progress, it certainly is close to big time.