By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic
It’s not going to reshape your concept of the Founding Fathers through inventive use of choreography and hip hop music. It’s not going to give you insight into how a fictional visitor from Kansas to a strange and distant land might be reset from her antagonist’s view. Neither will it make you fall in love with 19th century French students fighting for social change or how a young female singer resists a mysterious masked figure at the Paris Opera.
No. The musical Sweet Potato Queens will do none of that and, yet, it might bring pure joy and understanding for many of those who live lives of quiet desperation and hopelessness.
That’s the hope Jill Conner Browne had in writing her novels mirroring her own life and those of several composites of friends more than two decades ago. For those who may have never heard of Jill Conner Browne, she is a New York Times best selling author and resident of nearby Jackson, Mississippi whose nine books describing the kitschy use of boas, sequins and tiaras have made her a darling of millions of (mostly) women worldwide. They regard her examples of living life proudly as clarion calls toward sisterhood, supporting each other in times of trial and adversity.
Beginning with the “Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Love,” Browne’s popular books have not only established her celebrity as “The Boss Potato Queen,” but her legions of followers have established thousands of associated club chapters of similarly-disposed fans in many different countries around the globe. Her humorous bent has endeared her to the world and many regard her tongue-in-cheek, worldly wisdom as sage advice.
Among Brown’s biggest fans are composer and Grammy Award winning singer extraordinaire Melissa Manchester and lyricist Sharon Vaughn (“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”). They teamed up with Tony Award winning book writer Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) to unveil a musical version of Browne’s Sweet Potato Queens that was first performed in Houston in 2016.
The Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) embraced the idea of mounting a production as early as last year when artistic director Dennis Assaf journeyed to Cutting Edge Theater’s regional premiere and met all the female creative team of Browne, Manchester and Vaughn.
Directed by Kiane Davis, Sweet Potato Queens opened on September 16 at Teatro Wego in Westwego with Browne in attendance for every performance. (She was joined this weekend by Manchester, who flew in from California for the two evening and final matinee performances.)
Leading the cast of eight players was Krystal Gem, a standout vocalist with the integral and central role of Jill, based on the author’s life. A recent recipient of a master of fine arts degree from CalArts, Gem obtained her earlier vocal training at Millsaps College and grew up singing in the choir in Browne’s very own church. Browne recommended her to play the role of the misbegotten figure based on her early life and JPAS artistic director Dennis Assaf and director Davis readily agreed.
Gem’s fine vocals soared above the others in two of the opening numbers of “It’s Me” and “SPQ-tiful,” which introduced her fellow cast members, the majority of whom all bore the name Tammy. Melissa McKenzie played Floozie Tammy, who like Will Rogers, never met a man she didn’t like. Rachael Knaps portrayed Flower Tammy, a remarkably upbeat person who is being physically abused at home and has the shiners to prove it. Lalaynya Gunn played Too Much Tammy, a lady who had an ongoing love affair with food.
Then there was George, an obviously gay man, who was trying to channel his inner female in a town where such opportunities are limited. The other Sweet Potato Queens, who derived their name from the pickup truck in which they paraded annually on St. Patrick’s Day, embraced him as one of their own.
Jill’s parents were played by Shelby Faget Wynne and Joey Dowdall, while Scott Sauber portrayed Jill’s philandering and shiftless second husband Tyler. Sauber’s first act song, “We Had Some Good Times,” in which he tried to bring back the romance between him and his suspicious wife demonstrated he was clearly not be trusted. In fact, Jill’s mother doted on him and took up for him, one might have thought she was his own mother.
Sauber’s “No Man’s Land” in Act II is a highlight of the show.
When the Tammys got together as in Act Two’s “Funeral Food,” the levity can be cut with a knife and eaten metaphorically. Too Much Tammy demonstrated clearly that food preparation is an art best left to the professionals, of which the Tammys are at the top of their craft. Store-bought goodies would never do when homemade treats can be whipped up in one’s kitchen.
In the second act, Jill provided the Tammys with “Five” things they need to know about managing a relationship with a man and followed that up with the slightly risqué “Promise” in which Jill explained the way to get any man to do a lady’s bidding is by the power of suggestion. The piece had the entire audience laughing uproariously and reinforced much of the acquired wisdom Jill has to offer: men are clearly pigs who don’t think right when sex gets into the mix.
In the end, though, Sweet Potato Queens is about the raising up and support of the ladies (*and that occasional man) who need to make bold fashion statements to get through life. Through their donning of red and green boas, flashy sequins and brilliant tiaras, they establish their own paths in life and don’t require a man to understand them or tell them what to do.
The book by Holmes, coupled with the well-paired songwriting team of Manchester and Vaughn made Sweet Potato Queens a surefire hit that entertained the local JPAS audiences over the past three weeks. But it also served to inspire dozens of Jill Connor Browne fans who had no other place to go and play dress up.
In real life, Jill’s participation in the St. Patrick’s Day parades have raised millions of dollars for sick and distressed children. Collectively, with Sweet Potato Queens, the creative team behind the work and JPAS have also raised the spirits of a great many who need to embrace its message of down home empowerment and acceptance.
Bravo, Jill, Melissa, Sharon, Rupert and the cast of Sweet Potato Queens. Born out of tragedy, Jill Connor Browne’s stories are now forever a part of the musical theater repertoire. The joy in the audience in being a part of it and passion by the professionals presenting it says it all.
There are some out there who won’t get it and for them all that can be said is “bless their hearts.”
Sweet Potato Queens, directed by Kiane Davis, ran at the JPAS’ Teatro Wego from September 13 to October 2, 2022.