THEATER: “The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers” @ Capital Repertory Theatre, 7/10/13

Capital Repertory Theatre
Pastor Phil (played by Jesse Lenat) cautions his congregation against the pleasures of sin as Junie Lashley (played by Lori Fischer) listens intently and sister Lashley (played by Carter Calvert) remains skeptical. (photo: Joe Schuyler)

Review by Greg Haymes

Mama abandoned the family more than 30 years ago when her two daughters were young.

Daddy, who owns the Sparkley Clean Dry Cleaners in Tennessee, is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s.

Blonde bombshell daughter Lashley, a thrice-divorced former country music semi-star, deals with her problems by diving into a bottle.

Mousey, plain-jane, older sister Junie is Lashley’s harmony singer, though she’s tried of living in the shadow of her sister and yearns for a spotlight of her own while acting as the care-taker for her father and unsuccessfully attempting to keep Lashley semi-sober.

And then there’s Pastor Phil, a guilt-ridden, lust-driven man of the cloth with a gambling addiction, whose wife has run off and left him.

Sounds pretty much like the perfect ingredients for a classic country song, don’t it?

A train, you say? Why, yes, there’s got to be a train, and indeed a train rumbles through the rockin’ “All You Can Eat Liver and Onions” near the top of act two.

So why is it that “The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers” – currently having its world premiere at the Capital Repertory Theatre in downtown Albany – is too frequently derailed?

Primarily because the show – directed by Martha Banta and penned by Lori Fischer (who also plays the role of Junie) – simply doesn’t deliver enough laughs to justify its description as a “comic country musical.” Yes, Carter Calvert (as Lashley Lashley) earns some well-deserved chuckles in her drunk mode, and Fischer racks up serious guffaws with “Alcoholic Bungee Jumper” (oh yeah, the song titles are great), in which, after being deserted by her lead-singing sister, she attempts to sing only the back-up harmony parts of a song. It’s an old joke, but it’s a good one, and Fischer pulls it off with finesse. (Although, would anyone who had allegedly played the Grand Ole Opry would be so naive?)

The plotline has a lot of promise. The career of “nominally famous country singers” is cut short by Lashley’s fondness for tequila and a drunk driving tour bus accident. They find themselves back home at their father’s (Reathel Bean) dry cleaning shop, when Pastor Phil (Jesse Lenat) recruits them to write and sing made-to-order songs for funerals that he’s conducting at his church. Which leads to such gems as “Bindy, Take a Seat at the Banquet Table (‘Cause There’s No Need for Food Drives in Heaven),” “St. Peter, If You’re Listening, Tell Arthur Reid Hello” and the aforementioned “All You Can Eat Liver and Onions.”

The other problem is that Calvert throws the whole show off-balance. She not only looks good, but she sings great, and none of the other three actors come close to delivering her vocal power or characterization.

The real strength of “The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers” is in the songs, co-written by Fischer and Nashville singer-songwriter Don Chaffer, who also serves as the show’s musical director and guitarist. Particularly impressive are “Hello to Another Goodbye,” the hope-filled ballad “Love’s What Holds You Now” and the empowering, gospel-esque “Lay Your Burden Down.”

And under the direction of Chaffer, the live, backstage band (unfortunately unseen, without even a curtain call) features Calvert’s husband Roger Cohen on drums as well as versatile Local 518 musicians David Malachowski (guitar and mandolin) and jazz bassist Dylan Perrillo.

Ultimately, there’s much to recommend about “The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers” as a lively summer night out at the theater. It’s got good music and plenty of heart, but it’s going to need some tweaking before it moves on.

“The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers” continues at the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany through Sunday, August 4.

Bob Goepfert’s review at The Troy Record
Steve Barnes’ review at The Times Union
Richard DiMaggio’s review at Did You Weekend?

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