‘Songbird’ puts a country spin on Chekhov, with mixed results

Songbird review

PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON

“Songbird” cast members include, from left, Marrick Smith, Bob Stillman, Felicia Finley, Kacie Sheik, Andy Taylor, Kelly Karbacz, Drew McVety, Deon’te Goodman and Eric William Morris.

In the opening scene of “Songbird,” which is currently playing at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, country singer Tammy Trip (played by Felicia Finley) is at the Grand Ole Opry, winning a rising star award. She hands off her infant son when she takes the stage, in a callous manner that doesn’t just hint at her self-absorption, but makes her seem like the most self-absorbed person on Earth. Who in the world would act that way?

It was a small thing, but it bothered me. In most reviews, I wouldn’t even talk about it. But as the play proceeded, the improbabilities piled up so high they became an issue, so I think it is worth mentioning.

Felicia Finley and Marrick Smith in “Songbird.”

Soon after that brief opening scene, the action jumped way into the future (or, to put it another way, our present, judging by the Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton references). Tammy is now an established country star. Her son Dean (Marrick Smith) is an aspiring songwriter. And Tammy is coming back to the bar where she got her start, to see Dean perform and reconnect with other family members and friends.

A sign in the bar reads “Welcome Home Tammy,” and staff members are anticipating big tips from the full house. But though we see the bar open and close, and performances by Tammy, Dean and others, not a single customer walks through the bar’s doors. And nobody who works there seems to notice, or mind. It was bizarre, and something that could have been fixed by a little re-writing (make the gathering a private party).

There are other jarring notes: We’re told that every one of Tammy’s albums has gone triple platinum, but that’s she’s also having dwindling success. How could that be? And when one of the characters undergoes a traumatic, life-threatening event, the lack of basic concern by the other characters — all basically decent people, we’re led to believe — is so puzzling it becomes distracting.

Eric William Morris and Ephie Aardema in “Songbird.”

As a play-goer, you try to suspend disbelief about stuff like this, and get wrapped up in the story. But I wasn’t able to.

Another problem: This is a play with 10 characters and five love triangles, so most of these thorny relationships aren’t really explored with satisfying depth. There just isn’t enough time.

The musical — which debuted off-Broadway in 2015, with some of the same actors — features a book by Michael Kimmel and songs by Lauren Pritchard, and is based on Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” (Some may also recognize parallels with some of the characters of Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”). Jason’s Sherwood scenic design effectively evokes the rustic, beat-up charm of a downscale Nashville bar, and Pritchard’s songs seems like compositions these characters would sing.

Finley does a good job at projecting diva-like star power on her musical numbers. And another song, “Again” — a duet between Tammy’s young lover Beck (Eric William Morris) and Mia (Ephia Aardema), who starts the play as Dean’s girlfriend but quickly becomes infatuated with Beck — would, I’m convinced, make the actual country charts if someone like Underwood or Shelton recorded it.

And then “Songbird” would have a lasting claim to fame. Otherwise, though, it’s pretty forgettable.

“Songbird” is at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through July 1; visit tworivertheater.org.

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