“Fat Shirley’s” camps it up at the MACC
When you think of opera, song titles like “Tail-Whipping Time at the Trailer Park Tonight” or “He Gives Me Hickies,” probably don’t spring to mind. But that’s probably because not too many audiences get treated to writers Tom Brown and David Crawford’s bluegrass opera, a theatrical form the two pioneered when they created “Fat Shirley’s: A Trailer Park Opera,” opening at the Mountain Arts Community Center on Signal Mountain on July 31.
Brown is excited for opening night, confident in the skills of the cast and crew. “It’s a unique blend of new talent and experienced performers,” he says, “and we’re especially proud of the musical element that’s so integral to the show. The bluegrass band function alternately as narrators, a chorus, and star characters, so it isn’t like having a music pit or side box for the players. They are front and center the whole time.”
The cast has been putting in long hours of rehearsals, and the summer provides key timing. Most of the cast has some connection to education, either as students or teachers. Director Josh Ruben is able to lend his experience while he’s on summer break from his role as fine arts chair at Northwest Winfield High School, just outside of Dalton.
Ruben is a professional actor and producer who has performed all over the country and was on faculty as a teaching artist with the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta for over a decade. In Chattanooga, he has performed with the Oak Street Playhouse, Chattanooga Theatre Centre, and the Professional Actor Training Program at Chattanooga State.
“This is a fast, funny show with a lot charm. The MACC is a wonderful performance space and audiences will love the blue-collar comedy mixed with great, original music.” says Ruben.
Audiences can expect a rollicking comic farce with warm-hearted cracks at “redneck” culture. A Pulse critic who reviewed the original 2005 full-length production described it as, “a cross between “The Twilight Zone” and “Hee-Haw,” on acid.” Brown concurs, and describes his role in the show as Ray Con, married to Connie Ray Con, about whom the ballad, “She’s My Cousin, She’s My Wife,” is crooned.
“David [Crawford] and I wrote this thing back when we were teaching middle school together,” Brown says. “We started writing the songs years ago when we found out we had the same sense of humor, then staged an abbreviated version of the opera in 2003. We were just having fun writing this bizarre show, and it actually got staged—so we were happy. Everything else has just been a surprise.”
By surprise Brown is referring to “Fat Shirley’s” unexpected international success. Since its last regional staging in 2008, the show has been picked up by two British theater companies and taken on tour around the UK. It has a cult following there akin to the U.S. tradition of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Notably, this year the production will be featured every night for two weeks during the renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival, starting August 10.
When asked to conjecture about the show’s popularity with Brits, Brown guessed at a common comedic heritage.
“It kind of puzzled me at first. I mean, why would they find something so blatantly American this amusing? Then I remembered that they [British comedy] gave us Benny Hill and Monty Python. Given that—it kind of helps explain it.”
Brown understands quirky humor, and it’s a passion he shares with his more traditionally musical family. In an early production of “Fat Shirley’s,” Brown’s mother, a professional musician and founder of the Chattanooga Boys Choir, pitched in with gusto, blacking her teeth and playing the keyboard. Brown’s sister is also a classical musician: harpist for the Chattanooga Symphony.
“In spite of the show’s low-brow humor, my family has been supportive,” Brown says. “Of course it embarrasses my daughters. When they heard the songs they were plugging their ears, but eventually, one of them joined the cast!”
The show is family friendly (profanity-free), with the raciest element being a couple of innuendos that sail over young audience members’ heads. Director Ruben devised an ingenious element of surprise to the shows this time around.
The role of Shirley will rotate among various local “celebrity” guest performers. There are some fun and unexpected cameos in store—and not all of the guest Shirleys will be…female. Check out opening night for the perfect example.
“Fat Shirley’s: A Trailer Park Opera”
Mountain Arts Community Center
809 Kentucky Ave.