The Barter Blog

"Madame Buttermilk" reviewed by Bonnie Gable

June 14, 2018

“Madame Buttermilk” Proves That Opposites Attract

Review by Bonny Gable

Opposites attract. This mystifying principle of love matches has plagued us since the beginning of humankind. Why is that? Most likely because it prompts sparks to fly and ignites an unquenchable fire. Fortunately for us Ross Carter was not afraid to play with fire and paired up country western music with opera to create “Madame Buttermilk.” This brand new musical comedy is one of the most unique and clever entertainments ever to grace the stage.

Carly Speranza is an aspiring young opera singer whose lifelong dream has been to sing the role Carmen. Imagine her shock at learning that her agent has mistakenly booked her to sing at a Southern state fair with a country western group named “The Car Men.” Add to her chagrin the discovery that ex-boyfriend Connor Duke, now a country music star, is the headliner for the same show. Carly is as determined to sing her opera as the Car Men are to make her a country music leading lady, and the sparks begin to fly.

One does not have to be knowledgeable or even a fan of either style of music to be thrilled and thoroughly entertained by this show. The intermingling of the two styles is so ingenious that you are totally carried away with the comedic effect of their juxtaposition. Also amazing is how the comedy manages to be “corny” without ever being insulting. If you are from the South, as I am, it only invites you to laugh at yourself and all those endearing idioms and mannerisms that we know and love. Carter takes corn pudding and makes it into a tasty soufflé.

From an unlikely smorgasbord of styles Carter has created a concoction of flavors swirled into a delicious confection for the eyes and ears. He brilliantly incorporates elements of Vaudeville, screwball comedy films, old-style musicals, and even hints of silent film. Dody’s delightful mime performed to a melodramatic musical underscore lets us enjoy an almost lost art. There is stylistic variety in the music as well. In addition to country western tunes and operatic arias, the comic patter songs and sweet ballads scattered throughout are reminiscent of early twentieth century musicals and give the show an even a richer texture. Recitative – an operatic device more rhythmic than melodic used to move the story along – is employed here to the same end, but in a sophisticated comedic fashion.

The wordplay is ingenious. Never have words done such acrobatics as in this clever, quick and tight dialogue. Carly’s exquisite, precise elocution against Ford’s easy-going mispronunciations is a treat for the ear. Comic mashups — such as mistaking “Bizet” for a French toilet and Carly’s French for Cajun — runs rampant, the best of which is the reference to Giuseppe Verdi as Joe Greene. And of course, there is a treasure trove of “car” puns.

The entire cast shines as an ensemble. Hope Quinn is a knockout as Carly Speranza and proves that good things come in small packages. She is talent in pure concentrate form with the dynamite voice, authentic acting skill, and comic timing that are an absolute must for this role. Her leading man Justin Tyler Lewis captivates as Connor Duke, a.k.a Earl Conway, in this opportunity to play up heartthrob hunkiness as well a guy we all root for.

With his inimitable style and comedic flair, Rick McVey regales us as Ford Fairlane, fearless leader of the Car Men. Hannah Ingram as Dody is the darling of the show as his mute but devoted girlfriend. Paris Bradstreet as Carly’s agent Kit and Zacchaeus Kimbrell as the band’s manager Beemer create an amazing comic duo that will keep you in stitches.

Katherine Lyle does a hilarious turn as Jan Swaggart, the frazzled and excitable stage manager. The comedic exaggeration of this character is a loving tribute of sorts to all stage managers, who are actually the most calm and competent people ever. The unsung heroes of every show, they are consummate multi-taskers whose expertise keeps it on its feet and running smoothly. Hats off to Cindi A. Raebel and Victoria L. Sutton, the real stage manager and assistant respectively, and to stage managers everywhere.

Director Nicholas Piper’s staging keeps the action flowing briskly and ties in seamlessly with clever choreography. Ashley Campos as costumer demonstrates an uncanny knack for complimenting a show’s vision. In addition to the apropos plaid shirts and jeans and the gaudy western wear for the “show,” she puts the band in car repair shop uniforms and pairs everything – even Carly’s sheer evening dress — with cowboy boots. Derek Smith’s set works well with lighting by Camille Davis to create the carnival atmosphere. The starburst arch reminiscent of a Ferris wheel plus the entire set is studded with small twinkle lights, recalling the ubiquitous chase lights that adorn every surface at a typical fairground. Mark Hayes’s orchestra and vocal arrangements shine under Dishon Smith’s expert music direction. Perfectly balanced accompaniment from his band of excellent musicians gives lively support to the entire show.

It’s always exciting to witness the birth of an original — from an entry in Barter’s Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights in 2016 to a mini production to the full production that it richly deserves. What a joy to watch this rare gem evolve from a raw stone (though not so raw as it received a standing ovation at its first reading!) to a polished jewel.

In “Madame Buttermilk” expect the unexpected. Watching this show is as thrilling as falling through a rabbit hole filled with fun house mirrors — there is always a surprise just around the corner. This unlikely pairing of opposites ignites unquenchable laughter and invites you to bask in the fire.

“Madame Buttermilk” runs through August 19.

For tickets and information: 276-628-3991 or www.bartertheatre.com