Six women inmates, in a Texas jail for crimes ranging from cattle rustling to murder, form a country music band in order to get on the radio, get famous, and get pardoned by the governor. That is what happens in this show at the New York Musical Festival, a musical so tunefully entertaining that one could make allowances for such an outlandish plot. But we don’t have to: “The Goree All Girl String Band” is based on a true story.
Click on any photograph by Shira Friedman to see it enlarged
Inmates at the Goree State Farm for Women learned to sing and play string instruments well enough in 1940 to land on “Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls,” a surreal but real weekly program on WBAP that featured musical performances by Texas prisoners. The Goree group became famous throughout Texas – and, yes, the governor eventually pardoned them.
In the retelling of this history, we are first introduced to inmate Mozelle McDaniel (Ruby Wolf), just 17 years old and new to Goree, which allows the audience to get to know the jail along with her. Her fellow prisoners describe their crimes in a jaunty song, “Did It Cuz I Had To,” We meet Captain Marcus Heath (Nick Plakias) and his wife Clyde (Tamra Hayden), who run the jail. Clyde is warm-hearted; the Captain initially seems stiffer but fair and well meaning. When rowdy inmate “Cocaine” Nora Harris (Miche Braden) acts up, however, Heath has a guard force her to the infirmary for what the inmates call a “Mississippi Appendectomy” – an operation that makes her sterile. “Don’t want no more deviants; they think we’re deviants,” inmate Bonnie (Lizzie Hagstedt) explains.
But “Goree” is not gory; this is no Caged. The misery is played down. The music is what matters, 16 original songs composed by Artie Sievers, orchestrated by Max Gordon, and sung by all 13 members of the cast, who also play the musical instruments. Theatergoers are likely to remember Nora’s off-stage sterilization much less than Braden’s later bring-down-the-house blues solo, “How They Leave You.” Hers is just one of several memorable solos, most of them by performers portraying characters who are not among the six members of the Goree band – besides Braden’s, Hayden’s lovely “Great Big World” and Nattalyee Randall’s powerhouse “I Don’t Mind.”
The six-member band gets most of the attention. Reable Childs (Lauren Patten, veteran of “Fun Home” on Broadway and “The Wolves”) is the central character, the inmate who comes up with the idea of forming the band, after listening to Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls. Then Clyde the warden’s wife teaches the women how to play the musical instruments. By the end of Act I, they’ve made it to the radio show. By the beginning of Act II, they’ve become celebrities.
There are faint and feint stabs here and there at character development and complications and subplots; these are no more fleshed out than the set, which uses wooden ladders to suggest jail cells, and different color lights to mark a change of location. Michael Bradley’s book and lyrics play second fiddle to the fiddles …and the voices, guitar, banjo, drum, mandolin, cello and bass, as well as accordion, saw, spoons, and washboard — and to the musician/actors who play them. I would be remiss not to single out Hagstedt’s masterful bass playing. Ensemble member Titus Tompkins is the most spectacular player of a washboard that I’ve ever heard. That’s in the number called “Daddy Wore Boots,” when all stops are out, the entire cast is playing or singing, and the instruments and instrumentalists both seem to be flying in the air. These musical numbers are so damn fun that, while “The Goree All Girl String Band” may have its flaws, like the governor of Texas, I pardon them.
The Goree All-Girl String Band
Book and lyrics by Michael Bradley, music by Artie Sievers
Directed by Ashley Brooke Monroe
Music direction by Max Gordon, choreography by Brandon Powers, scenic design by Brett J. Banakis, costume design by Tina McCartney, lighting design by Isabella Byrd
Cast: Lauren Patten, Elizabeth Hagstedt, Kendra Jo Brook, Ruby Wolf ,Titus Tompkins, Lauren J. Thomas, Robert Ariza, Tamra Hayden,Luke Darnell, Nattalyee Randall ,Chanel Karimkhani, Nick Plakias,and Miche Braden
Running time: Two hours including an intermission
The Goree All Girl String Band is on stage through Saturday, July 29, 2017