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Delaware Theatre Company kicks off its 43rd season with a world premiere of Here You Come Again: How Dolly Saved My Life in 12 Easy Songs. This charming two-hander is filled with Parton positivity, homespun advice, thwarted romance, and music galore. Per the subtitle, it’s no spoiler to reveal that the ministrations of that magically appearing country music star lead to a happy Dollywood ending.
The show opens in an attic that’s a prop person’s paradise (or nightmare), as Kevin (the affable Jamison Stern) crawls through the window. Quarantining during Covid-19’s early days, he comes toting huge quantities of 2020 scarcities—toilet paper, groceries, a tub of cheese curls. The aspiring comic has come home to roost from NYC (pandemic HQ) after a breakup with boyfriend Jason. His childhood bedroom has been turned into a quilting studio, and his germ-phobic parents have forbidden him the front door, so he must enter the “attic penthouse in Longview, Texas” via a window.
Kevin is one of the legions of Parton uber-fans, and as he puts on a record to comfort himself, his life-sized Dolly poster transforms into the somewhat bossy iconic singer herself (a glittering, glowing Tricia Paoluccio). She steps into his garret and his life, taking morose and self-pitying Kevin firmly in hand as she sings her hits (like “Jolene,” “The Seeker,” and “9 to 5”) and dispenses her famous Dollyisms. (“It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world.”)
There’s lots of backstory about both the never-has-been comedian and the dazzling star, and throughout the play’s two acts, the authors handle the required exposition quite deftly. Actors often address the audience, sad-sack Kevin mourning his failures and clear-eyed Dolly annotating her successes (“I know I’m not dumb and I know I’m not blonde”). Their earnest efforts to bring the audience along often resulted in pacing that was pushed at the early performance I attended, something that should settle as the production finds its rhythm.
Early in the play’s development, Parton (incidentally in Wilmington this summer for her Imagination Library project) gave it her imprimatur. It’s no small feat to take well-known, narrative country hits and craft a script that makes sense, and this one mostly does. There’s even a clever spoof of Parton’s sometimes melodramatic writing. And contrary to the title, the show really includes 15 songs (10 by Dolly), expertly sung and gleefully devoured. Gabriel Barre’s direction is clever and clear, and if sometimes the situations are slightly stretched, the music trumps the inconsistencies.
Co-author Paoluccio (singing the songs that riveted her at age 6) scales those Parton heights with ease, grace, and impressive musical chops. Buxom and clad in a series of remarkable concert gowns by Bobby Pearce (“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap”), she artfully brings Dolly to life without resorting to caricature, and her songs deliver the musical force of the legendary singer without push or strain.
Stern has worked on Broadway, national tours, and in television, and his fine pop voice is used to good effect. He portrays the character’s malaise and longing—“I work in the vicinity of comedy”—somewhat repetitively in the first act, but the actor finds firmer footing as the show goes on, especially in the closing number “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.”
Standout music and design
There’s a first-rate four-piece band (including Nero Catalano, Sal Mazzotta, and the great Jay M. Ansill) expertly led from the keyboard by legendary music director/orchestrator/arranger Eugene Gwozdz. Ansill’s eloquent string playing is especially notable in “God’s Coloring Book;” Gwozdz has a beautiful, lyrical keyboard turn in the closing number; and the surprising end-of-show playout is a real treat.
Starry production designers include three-time Tony nominee Anna Louizos, whose witty attic set bursts with an amazing array of throwback items never thrown away (props to Props!). Tony-nominated costume designer Pearce works widely for theaters, opera, TV, and international skating stars. There’s lively, clever lighting by Philadelphian Alyssandra Docherty, and magic consultant Michael Misko weaves mysterious effects into Barre’s straightforward staging.
Remembrance and relief
Bruce Vilanch, who wrote the show along with Barre and Paoluccio, is a multiple Emmy-winning writer and comic—Kevin is clearly an alter-ego—and he and Barre have worked at DTC before, mounting another songs-to-script creation: the impressive Sign of the Times (2018). There are “pandemic plays” (onstage now or on the horizon) that recreate our abject fear, isolation, and confusion during the onset of the recent scourge. But these authors illuminate those stringent pandemic requirements—spraying, disinfecting, hand-washing to the birthday song, endless virtual conversations—in warmly shining comic headlights. And they even tapped their own pandemic reality: the seemingly far-fetched “entry through the attic window” plot device was lifted from a friend’s quarantine situation.
So kudos to this production, expertly and comically straddling the thin line of remembrance and relief. And whether you’re a Parton afficionado or not, Here You Come Again, full of Dolly’s advice (“Find out who you are and do it on purpose”) and tuneful music, makes an affirming and welcome treat.
What, When, Where
Here You Come Again: How Dolly Saved My Life in 12 Easy Songs. By Bruce Vilanch, Gabriel Barre, and Tricia Paoluccio, with music by Dolly Parton (and others); directed and choreographed by Barre. $29-$65. Through October 2, 2022, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
DTC has upgraded air-handling systems. Masks and proof of Covid-19 vaccination are not required, though protocols may shift with evolving local and national guidelines. Check DTC website for current policies.
DTC is a wheelchair-accessible venue with wireless assistive listening and large-print programs available. For wheelchair seating, notify the box office when ordering tickets.
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