By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Jill Conner Browne has transformed herself into the head of a giant cottage industry of self-aware and loudly proud plus-sized and older aged women, all of whom want what she is selling. In short, it’s the ability to live out their lives without having to answer to manipulative and overbearing men, and to transform themselves into life-affirming members of the Sweet Potato Queens.
How Conner Browne happened to become the “Big Boss Queen” in Jackson, Mississippi along with several of her friends and form the first chapter of this worldwide phenomenon is recounted in her book “The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love,” which became a national bestseller in 1999 and sparked several other books in its wake.
According to Conner Browne’s website dedicated to the Sweet Potato Queens, 6,477 chapters have been registered in the United States and in other countries.
Some 14 years after that initial book was published, lyricist Sharon Vaughn out of Nashville (“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”) and singer Melissa Manchester (“Don’t Cry Out Loud”) became impressed with the book as a possible basis for a musical, they sought out the services of a good book writer. Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) suggested someone he thought might make for a good partner for the two ladies, but when that pairing failed, he stepped in to write the manuscript during the two-year creative process for what has become Sweet Potato Queens: The Musical.
Conner Browne may have only peripherally collaborated on the construction of the musical with the other principals, but her presence is seen and felt throughout the work. She is, after all, the main character around which all the other characters revolve. And it all starts with the very first song “It’s Me.” The song also serves as a fitting finale.
Cutting Edge Theatre presented Sweet Potato Queens: The Musical over the course of three weekends in July and Conner Browne was in attendance for every show, sporting some of her signature feathers, sequins and tiaras. Also present in the crowd were a good number of members of her chapters who gleefully appeared in colorful evening gowns and their own boas and tiaras in support.
For the final night composer Manchester and lyricist Vaughn also were on hand to cheer on the performers.
Lisa Keiffer handled the leading role of Jill with a large amount of “boldly bodacious” positive energy. The character of Jill was dealing with the fact she possesses “four of the seven signs of trailer trash.” She had a dead-end job, couldn’t pay her rent and suspected her soul-sucking husband, Tyler (Nathan Parrish) was a serial cheater.
Through a succession of songs, her sordid story was told as well as those of her first Sweet Potato Queens, a trio of “Tammys.” Floozy Tammy was played by Dawn Mastascuso, a woman who had one thing on her mind, men. Too Much Tammy was played by Jennifer Gesvantner, a woman who had one thing her mind, food. Finally, Kaitlyn Walker took on the role of Flower Tammy, a woman who had one thing on her mind, the fist of her abusive husband.
As Tyler, Parrish did have an opportunity to sing a couple of numbers including a bluesy number, “No Man’s Land” in Act II set in a gay bar and “We Had Some Good Times” in Act I opposite Kieffer as Jill, as he related his view that their marriage was in a good place. (Jill expressed her lingering doubts, despite admonitions from her Mama that she should trust her husband more.)
Added to the mix was Joel Sunsin in the role of George, a down-on-his-luck gay man, who found what the Sweet Potato Queens had to offer was also of value to him. (Coincidentally, the real George and a companion were in the audience the final night too.)
Rounding out the cast was Vee Sims as Mama (and the Bartender) and Jim Pagones as Daddy, both of whom sang a reprise together of “Do What Makes Your Heart Sing.” Sims did have an opportunity to show off her individual vocal skills earlier in “Sears.”
With a philosophical bent of “Sequins. Feathers. It don’t get any better,” the Sweet Potato Queens band together to help one another and find their group identity established when they climb onto the back of a truck in Jackson’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, each adorned with their flashy finery and showing the world that larger (sometimes smaller), older (sometimes younger) women (and at least one gay man) are not ashamed to be “boldly bodacious.”
As to the song selections, there are some very good examples of song writing to be found within the musical. From the risqué sexual innuendo of “The Promise” (in which the ladies reveal their secret way to a man’s heart) to the glorification of fattening delicacies in “Funeral Food” and on to the waltz-like melody of “Cherries in the Snow,” which praises the charms of Avon, Manchester’s music and Vaughn’s words advance the plot and give depth to the Sweet Potato Queens.
All of the singers were gleaned from the ranks of the local Slidell community theatre scene and none were trained as professional singers. Occasional inconsistencies in performance and a lack of vocal techniques were more than made up with the exuberance and joy the cast displayed in their performances. In fact, this was such an inspirational story of the downtrodden overcoming life’s travails that perfect vocals might have been considered out of character for any of them.
Directed and produced by Brian Fontenot, Sweet Potato Queen: The Musical ran at Cutting Edge Theater, 767 Robért Boulevard in Slidell, LA from July 2 – July 24, 2021.