A death and its aftermath form the crawdad shell of Minds Eye Theatre's Sordid Lives. The matriarch of a twangy Texas clan has died after an unfortunate dalliance with potbellied, wooden-legged G.W. (Chris Wright), much to the humiliation of his wife, Noleta (Taylor Gass). The old girl has left a sister, Sissy (Glendora Davis); two daughters, the uptight Petra (Latrelle) and the trampy LaVonda (Sara Crow); and a son, Brother Boy (Kevin Eib), who has been institutionalized for twenty years for believing he's the rightful heir to Tammy Wynette's country-music divadom.
Circling the perimeter of this double-wide paradise gone to pot are Petra's son, Ty (Cameron Haines), a closeted, hunky soap-opera actor in New York; and the local folksinger, Bitsy (a resplendent Karen Jones), who serenades the audience during the scene breaks with traditional hymns and the title tune, which equates life to a box of Cracker Jack tainted by "a shitty prize."
The show, which manages to be heartfelt despite its pointed stereotyping, is divided into chapters. The first, "Nicotine Fit," engagingly introduces half of the characters, who are divided about how Mama should be laid out -- with fox stole or without. The second chapter, "Two Wooden Legs," is an overlong and improbable sketch in which Noleta and LaVonda turn the tables on G.W. and two of his good ol' boys, Wardell (Justin Zimmerman) and Odell (Ryan Brinkerhoff), by forcing them at gunpoint to don bras and makeup. If there's a high point in this scene stretching vainly for hilarity, it would be Odell's oddly funny fondness for amusing himself through his cheetah-print thong.
After intermission, Brother Boy is found in a "de-homosexualization" session with the unethical Dr. Eve (Irene Blend), whose success rate at conversion therapy ranks up there with Jennifer Lopez's marriages. The show's circle goes unbroken by bringing everyone to the funeral home to bid Mama adieu, followed by a giddy curtain call set to a fabulous dance remix of Wynette's "This Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad."
Christopher King directs the show with a warm embrace for Shores' Southern gothic, rendered annoying and shrill in the inexplicable cult hit version of the film. These people are mostly mean as copperheads, but King and his cast soften their edges without defanging the script. They're ridiculous yet lovable in the way of those relatives who maintain that tuna casserole requires crumbled potato chips on the top. (Not any of my relatives, mind you.) Jeff Mace's set design and Barbara Paeth's costume work are equally redoubtable in their detail.
The actors vacillate between fine-tuned character work and broad brush strokes. Most successful: Zimmerman's sweetly rueful Wardell, Davis' amiably high-strung Sissy, Eib's skankily glamorous Brother Boy and Jones' mysterious Bitsy. Jones, in fact, shares the show's loveliest moment with Haines -- his coming-out scene, a monologue about bravery underscored by her hushed, gospel trilling. At that moment, the show stops being Hee Haw and mutates into a human story about overcoming, both metaphorically and literally, the curse of dark roots.
From Disney's New York office, Kennison tells the Pitch that selecting Kansas City as an audition site isn't as odd as it seems. "I've been going around the country for a couple years now, like St. Louis last year, where we found about three people who I can see using down the line," he explains. "Beauty and the Beast had a good run there, and we have an affiliation with the [Alvin] Ailey school there. So why not Kansas City?"
Being Disney, the company is enforcing stringent audition requirements: kids between 9 and 12 years old must max out at a height of 58 inches and be prepared to run through the last verse of "Just Can't Wait to Be King" -- certainly an apt, if gender-specific, song choice. For adults, the standard audition practices apply: "Bring the sheet music of a song that shows off your voice and range." Sign-in for kids is Friday between 3 and 4:30 p.m. with auditions starting at 4; adults should be there Saturday between 9:30 and 11 a.m.
With a background in directing and theater education, Kennison sees the audition for a behemoth like Disney as a learning experience for both the locals and himself. "We want this to be mutually beneficial," he says. "It's not so intimidating that I can't give feedback, like, CEI'll be back in a year or less, and here's what you need to work on.' We want to develop a pool of talent. And with all of these productions, we need lots of kids."
Still, Kennison says he's not expecting to find Broadway's newest star among the Starlight pack. "I would love for that to happen," he says. "But is it realistic? No."