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The Splendid Songs of Frank Higgins’ “WMKS” Make Up for the Musical Revue’s Paper-Thin Plot

"WMKS, Where Music Kills Sorrow" runs through June 26th (photo by Ron Foreman)

"WMKS, Where Music Kills Sorrow" runs through June 26th (photo by Ron Foreman)

The final production of University Theatre at N.C. State’s TheatreFest 2011: Southern Comfort is WMKS, Where Music Kills Sorrow, playwright and poet Frank Higgins’ down-home musical revue in the form of a barn-style radio show, circa 1935. WMKS has a paper-thin plot about father-son tension between Arthell “Doc” Carroll (T. Philip Caudle) and his estranged son Johnny (Mark Dillon), a rising Country-and-Western star who has outgrown his “Little Doc” persona and wants to expand his professional horizons far beyond the coal mining country of Big Stone Gap, VA, where Doc broadcasts his weekly variety show from Carroll’s Sawmill and Lumberyard.

A contrived subplot that involves an African-American couple named Robert and Audrey Newton (John Rogers Harris and Rhonda Bond) is more than a little far fetched, but provides an excuse for Bond and especially Harris to sing the blues, “John Henry,” and some spirituals as they were meant to be sung.

Tim Caudle and Mark Dillon make their family feud all too real, and Elizabeth Williams is a real steel magnolia as Doc’s wife and Johnny’s mother Alma Carroll, whose peacemaking attempts are initially rebuffed. The love triangle between Johnny, his former sweetheart Cindy (Brett Williams), and her new boyfriend Willy (Tyler Haggard) provides some comic relief.

The musical staging by University Theatre’s assistant director and acting coach Allison Bergman needs some tightening; but a bodacious backup band that includes musical director Cathy Hamner (piano, autoharp, dulcimer, and spoons); Ryan Mack (bass); Christen Blanton (fiddle and mandolin); and Doug Baker (banjo and guitar) provides vivacious instrumental accompaniment for a splendid sampling of the gospel, blues, and old-timey string music sections of the American songbook.

In fact, forget the plot. The music alone is worth the price of admission to WMKS; and TheatreFest audiences will leave the Titmus Theatre with smiles on their faces and robust renditions “Oh, My Lord, What a Time”; “Jenny Jenkins”; “(As I Went) Down in the Valley to Pray”; “The Ballad of Tom Dooley”; “You’re Gonna Reap Just What You Sow”; “Scarborough Fair”: “John Henry”; “All the Pretty Little Horses (Hush-a-Bye)”; “I Shall Not Be Moved”; “Mama Don’t Allow”; “Amazing Grace”; and others familiar favorites ringing in their ears.

SECOND OPINION: June 22nd Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Zach Smith (who awarded the show 3 of 5 stars): (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the June 16th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click

University Theatre at N.C. State presents WMKS, WHERE MUSIC KILLS SORROW at 7:30 p.m. June 25 and 2 p.m. June 26 in the Titmus Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall, on E. Dunn Ave. at Jensen Dr., in Raleigh, NC 27607, on the NCSU campus.

TICKETS: $13-$15 ($5 NCSU students).

BOX OFFICE: 919/515-1100 or






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