A country show worth seeing

Human Race Theatre Company’s ‘Play It By Heart’

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: [l to r] Sharva Maynard as Naomi Jasper, Kathryn Boswell as Jamie Lynn and Trisha Rapier as Jeannine in “Play It By Heart”; photo: Scott J. Kimmins

“Play it by Heart’s” premiere is a total performance from the heart with touching music and a book creating real people. You don’t have to be a country music fan to connect with the beauty or be affected by powerful interpretations and direction.

An opening night audience marveled, “I could understand every word.” “I have a new appreciation for country music I never much thought about.” “I like all kinds of music, opera, classics and I love this show.”

Music and lyrics are by David Spangler and Jerry Taylor, lyrics also credited to the late R. T. Robinson – all award winners. Brian Yorkey, 2009 Drama Pulitzer winner for “Next to Normal” and Tony nominee this year for “If/Then,” joined the project to write the new book several years ago.

The Human Race Theatre Company has worked with the creative team over the last five years to develop this show with readings and a musical theatre workshop in 2009 and 2010. 

“I believe regional theatre can function these days doing what Off-Broadway did in the past; cultivate the artists, providing the time to refine and polish new material,” Director Kevin Moore said.

“Play It By Heart” is the story of three strong women, the singing Jaspers: Mama Naomi (Sharva Maynard), country star older daughter, Jeannine (Trisha Rapier) and younger sister, Jamie Lynn (Kathryn Boswell.)

As she did in the Broadway Series production of “Next to Normal” at the Victoria last year, Rapier and her beautiful, strong vocal interpretations carry the show. She’s expressive, she’s assured, she can find a subtle note. 

“At the New York auditions, she brought me to tears,” composer Spangler said.

Jeannine has been a country music star and the family’s main source of income for the past 20 years. She’s ready to stop touring, stop singing and have a life. Mama sees her lavish lifestyle going away.

The story has several plot twists and more than one surprise. It’s woven together with a thread of forgiveness and the need for truth in family relationships. The music seamlessly supports the story and emotional depth of the characters. 

It takes a talented actor to create a character as consistently unlikeable as Naomi Jasper, and Sharva Maynard does a fine job. At the same time, she allows Mama’s vulnerability and neediness to just barely show beneath her tough exterior.

New to the Human Race is George Psomas as Naji Habib, a Harvard-educated Muslim and an heir to a fortune. His sudden impact on the Southern family becomes a focal point in the story and provides needed comedy, as well as a beautifully poignant moment. His keeping up with the good ol’ boys’ drinking scene is delightful.

Kathryn Boswell is the younger sister, Jamie Lynn – the angry one. Feeling unloved and over-educated, of course, she goes on a reality show. She sings country in a more contemporary style and is an energetic and talented dancer.

As Billy Tucker, Jeannine’s old boyfriend, Paul Blankenship is calm and capable, reconnecting with Jeannine and standing up to Naomi.

Human Race resident artists Scott Stoney and Tim Lile deliver their usual dependable interpretations. Stoney brings humor and stability to Buck, Naomi’s kind and patient husband. Lile is Lyle Mount, long-time manager for Jeannine. Both display their singing skills well.

J.J. Tiemeyer, Wright State and Human Race alumnus, plays road manager Robbie Wilkins with a range of dramatic opportunities. He’s also one of the backup singers for the road show.

Completing the cast of ten, Christine Brunner and Cooper Taggard are double-cast. She’s a believable backup singer and Debbie Dean, a spot-on, self-serving TV gossiper. Wonderful humorous moments. Taggard, recent WSU grad with supple and graceful movement, is a backup singer, a barkeep, a doctor and does a nice dance turn.

Overall is Director Kevin Moore, who has worked consistently to advance the play’s development, guiding it with a sensitive hand, finding and highlighting the heart of the script and the characterizations. “I’ve felt Broadway and country music never found a way to cohabit,” Moore said. “Both tell great stories, but this has potential to bridge that gap. Working with the team has been an incubator of creativity.”

Nils-Petter “Nippe” Ankarblom plays keyboard and conducts a six-person band, including guitarist and Assistant Music Director Jay Brunner. They support, but never overwhelm, adding to the evening’s pleasure.

Adam Koch, locally-grown but Carnegie Mellon-educated, is scenic designer with a busy set of many moving parts, from an indication of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to a private bus interior to a hospital room. A very fast-moving crew during black-outs creates many other vignette settings. 

Costume designer and costume shop manager Christie Peitzmeier dressed the Jasper women in elegant, tasteful and beautifully fitted sparkle, as well as good every-day wear. The men contrast in jeans, managing to wear cowboy boots with aplomb.

John Rensel, always professional, lights both the theatrical scenes and the variety of others convincingly. Kay Carver is stage manager; Brian Retterer, sound designer; Megan Wean Sears, choreographer.

With a 75 minute first act and a 65 second act, the show feels long, but never tiring. To trim dialogue, songs or scene changes is possible, but challenging, maybe heartbreaking.

“Play It By Heart” will be at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. through Sunday, July 6. For tickets, and more information, please call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630 or visit humanracetheatre.org/theloft.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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