KPBS AIRDATE: July 29, 1994
The Kennedys, King and color TV. It was a time of life-changing endings and beginnings. The summer of 1969 — half a million hippies landed at Yazgur’s farm and Apollo 11 landed on the moon. If you were alive, you were watching. One-fifth of the world’s population was watching. Though the evening did drag on, as a character in “Dixie Highway” so honestly admits: “The whole world’s watchin’ dirt… it’s kinda like watchin’ paint dry.”
“Dixie Highway” is a down-home, home-grown musical, created by the local crew that gave us “Suds” several years back, produced by Mystery Cafe impresario Julia Hollady, and currently having its world premiere at the Hahn Cosmpolitan Theatre. It’s a tiny little, cast-of-five musical with a four-man band. Cute, nostalgic, tuneful, engaging. Not too heavy on message or meaning, but there’s a tad of mother-daughter sparring, a few wisps of color from the 60s political spectrum, and, in the act-two ensemble song, “One Small Step,” a quick glimpse of how the momentous moon-walk affected different segments of society.
First, there’s Dixie, the tough-as-nails, hard-working single mom/ entrepreneur, who runs a roadside diner in southern Kentucky. She’s slaving and scrimping so her daughter Sarah can have a better life, so she’ll be the first one in the family to go to college. Sarah has other ideas; bright, dreamy and poetic, she feels trapped in the truck-stop. She wants to see the world and write about it.
Meanwhile, there’s the more sensible Iris, a black woman who works for Dixie, and has an offstage, Black Power boyfriend. Then there’s dependable Carl, a blue collar Everyman who’s nerdy but affable, a Mr. Fixit who proposes to Dixie on a weekly basis.
And into this humdrum, quotidian scenario saunters Jason, a long-haired college-dropout, a draft-dodging guitar-player, straight from Haight-Ashbury and on his way to some music festival in upstate New York. He’s kind of playing out Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider,” but he has a much easier time of it. First of all, his hair isn’t all that long and his clothes aren’t all that scruffy. Maybe that’s why, in a barely believable twist, Carl, the patriotic redneck, is the first one to take to him. Even before Sarah does. The two young folks fit together like a poem and a melody. He’s writing her song and she’s ready to leave, but her mother resists with the fierce energy of a southern summer tornado.
Men walk on the moon. Everyone waxes philosophical. Dixie relents; Carl gets his ‘yes’. Jason vows honorable intentions and Sarah goes off with him. And Iris makes a decision which remains murky and ill-defined. The book, by Tom Oldendick and Will Roberson, has more heft than its close relative, “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” which just finished a run at Lamb’s Players Theatre.
Unlike that little revue, the songs here advance the story. It’s sweet music, a patchwork of country, folk, rockabilly, blues and Motown, with a bit of Broadway splash and Steve Gunderson’s often unpredictable melodies. Will Roberson’s lyrics, like much of the book, lean so heavily on clichés that it’s stifling. There’s a little less unpredictability here, though there are clever moments. The musical backup is solid if not breathtaking.
And the cast, well, they’re all good, but no one’s a knockout, and there are no real show-stoppers in the score. Everyone has a well-suited number, the harmonies are tight, the direction is inventive if not inspired. It’s all very… pleasant. Not quite enough for me in the theater, but it might make you feel warm and fuzzy and reminiscent. And maybe that’s sufficient for a summer evening.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.