The Southern Gothic characters of the The Miss Firecracker Contest, now playing at Raleigh Little Theatre, do not lead lives of quiet desperation. Starting with Brookhaven, MS town slut-turned local beauty pageant contestant Carnelle Scott (zestfully portrayed by Kirsten Ehlert), Crimes of the Heart playwright Beth Henley’s frisky fictional creations are one big hot mess after another.
Ehlert gives a caffeinated characterization of a loser desperate to win — just one time — in any competition, no material how trivial or personally demeaning. Carnelle tries too hard to be accepted. Her bizarre pageant talent routine — in which she tap dances to ”The Star-Spangled Banner,” while shooting off Roman candles and waving sparklers — endeared her to the small but enthusiastic audience at RLT last Friday night.
Will Carnelle achieve her impossible dream of being crowned Miss Firecracker at Brookhaven’s Independence Day celebration? It would be more fun to find out if Ehlert’s supporting cast could bring more of Beth Henley’s hilarious oddball characters to full, glorious life. But they can’t — or didn’t — last Friday night. Maybe the half-empty house was disheartening.
Laurell Bell is wide-eyed and eager as Popeye Jackson, but RLT guest director Shawn Smith has Popeye careening around the Act I set of Carnelle’s living room, magnifying glass in hand, examining the room’s decor like a first-time visitor, instead of one of Carnelle’s closest friends and her personal seamstress for her gaudy pageant wardrobe, which looks like something off the People of Wal-Mart website.
Aaron Young‘s desultory performance as Carnelle’s crazy cousin Delmont Williams likewise does little to demonstrate why Delmont is considered catnip for women or why Popeye is instantly smitten with him. Sharon Galluzzo’s portrayal of Delmont’s snooty socialite sister, Elain Rutledge, also lacks that special something that tickles audience’s funny-bones. Elain loathes Delmont; and rather than bail him out when his hair-trigger temper lands him on the police blotter … again, she leaves Delmont rotting in a mental institution.
Young never quite slips into Delmont’s black-sheep’s clothing, and Galluzzo fails to sink her teeth into the juicy role of society matron-turned-runaway wife. The usually reliable Larry Evans is also a little too nonchalant in his portrayal of Carnelle’s handsome but sleazy former boyfriend Mac Sam, who inexplicably refuses to allow the venereal disease that he caught from Carnelle to be treated; and Becca Easley is miscast as Delmont’s nemesis, the former teen temptress Tessie Mahoney, who is now coordinator for the Miss Firecracker Contest.
Set and lighting designer Jim Zervas does a fine job of with his warm and cozy first-act set of the living room that Carnelle and the newly released Delmont share, but his over-elaborate second-half set of the fairgrounds where the Miss Firecracker Contest takes place sometimes proves an impediment to the action. It is just one more reason why The Miss Firecracker Contest fizzles, despite a crowd-pleasing performance by Kirsten Ehlert as Carnelle Scott.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 12th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Jessie Dresser: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=5354. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Feb. 10th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/02/see-beth-henleys-a-splendid-southern-gothic-comedy-the-miss-firecracker-contest-on-feb-10-26-at-rlt/.)
Raleigh Little Theatre presents THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST at 8 p.m. Feb. 16-18, 3 p.m. Feb. 19, 8 p.m. Feb. 23-25, and 3 p.m. Feb. 26 in the Cantey V. Sutton Main Stage Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $20 ($16 students and seniors 62+), except all tickets $12 on Feb. 19th.
BOX OFFICE: 919/821-3111 or http://www.etix.com/.
NOTE: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive listening devices are available for all shows.
The Play: http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
The Playwright and Screenwriter: http://www.olemiss.edu/mwp/dir/henley_beth/index.html (The Mississippi Writers Page) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beth_Henley (Wikipedia).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.