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The Honky Tonk Angels' take flight

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Photo courtesy: Magnus Stark Photo courtesy: Magnus Stark

PTC production features foot-stomping country classics

BANGOR Area audiences are getting the chance to experience a little slice of honkytonk heaven.

Penobscot Theatre Company is presenting 'The Honky Tonk Angels,' a play by Ted Swindley (the creator of 'AlwaysPatsy Cline). The show runs through Sept. 21 at the Bangor Opera House.

It's a tale of three women who step away from their lives in order to take a swing at their dreams of country music stardom in Nashville. Each of them leaves behind difficult circumstances so that they might embrace the music that sings in their souls.

There's Angela (Heather Astbury-Libby), a housewife living in a Texas double-wide. She has six kids, a husband named Bubba and a dynamite voice. Bubba's lack of appreciation for her is a major part of her decision to leave for a little while. There's Darlene (Brianne Beck), a simple girl born in the West Virginia hills. She's living at home, caring for a father who can't stop mourning his deceased wife (and Darlene's mother). Darlene's escape springs from a need to start living her own life. And then there's Sue Ellen (Laura Hodos), a young woman living in Los Angeles. She's twice divorced and working a job she hates, fielding calls from her disappointed mother all the while. She heads to Nashville because she knows deep down that she's meant for something more.

Three women, bearing as many similarities as differences, undertaking the same journey for different reasons. Fate brings them together as they find themselves sitting together on a bus, making one another's acquaintance as they ride into the frightening, but eagerly anticipated unknown. That chance meeting gives birth to a three-headed country music dynamo the Honky Tonk Angels and it doesn't take long before these ladies find a gig and proceed to blow the roof off the joint.

While casting is important in any show, a production like this one one with just three characters and packed full of iconic songs particularly requires a strong group of actresses. Happily, that's just what this show has. Astbury-Libby gives Angela a big-hearted brashness that makes her endearingly larger-than-life. Meanwhile, Beck imbues Darlene with a soft-spoken reserve, a shyness that renders her impassioned vocals all the more effective. And Hodos somehow manages to be sweetly abrasive there's a brazenness to Sue Ellen that might be off-putting in less capable hands. Instead, Hodos informs her with a core of genuineness that lights the character from within.

Granted, there's not a whole lot in terms of narrative here. 'The Honky Tonk Angels' does have a story, but that story tends to take a back seat to the magnificent musicality of the proceedings. The narrative exists primarily to bring the women together; once they've united, the tale being told gracefully steps aside and lets the Honky Tonk Angels soar.

Fortunately for fans of the genre, this trio is more than capable of handling anything that the country canon can throw at them. The show flies when the three of them work in harmony, aligning their powerfully lovely voices to take on these songs of love, loss and heartbreak. That being said, each woman gets the opportunity to shine on an individual level. Astbury-Libby's hysterical take on 'Harper Valley PTA' is a highlight, as is the raucous fun Hodos has with '9 to 5.' Beck puts an engaging inner darkness on display with her takes on 'Ode to Billy Joe' and 'Fancy.' Truthfully, though every one of the 30-plus songs could be considered a highlight.

Of course, they could never reach these heights without the contributions of the band. This stkicking six-piece Wells Gordon on bass, Ira Kremer on guitar, Tom Libby on drums, Dave O'Brien on steel guitar, Max Silverstein on fiddle and musical director Phil Burns on keyboards provides a thumping, bumping backbone. Their musicianship is the foundation that allows the Angels to take flight; each member of the band is a vital piece of the puzzle. We're talking honky tonk symphonic.

Director/choreographer Michele Colvin has some experience in the country music realm and it shows. There's an understanding of the general sensibility that can't be denied; there's a brightness to the whole production that springs from that sensibility. Scenic designer Tricia Hobbs and lighting designer Jess Fialko have combined forces to build a playing space that allows for both big breadth and quiet intimacy no easy feat and key to the success of the show. Costume designer Kevin Koski offers up his usual excellent work, as do sound designer Brandie Rita and props designer Meredith Perry. All in all, it's a top-shelf production team.

'The Honky Tonk Angels' might not tell the most compelling story you'll ever hear, but with compelling characters, beautiful vocals and kick-ass musicianship, it does offer up one hell of a good time.

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