If you like quirky musicals that are exquisitely well staged and well acted that are bursting with creativity and oddities galore, you’ll likely love Haunted Hillbilly: a SideMart Theatrical Grocery Musical Adaptation of Derek McCormack’s novel of the same name, which plays at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace as part of the 2010 SummerWorks Festival.
A perfect mixture of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Hee Haw, Haunted Hillbilly tells the story of the rise to stardom of Hyram Woodside, the Lonely Boy country singing sensation, who quickly finds himself at the mercy of a strange fashion designer named Nudie who, as the creator of the Hyram Woodside brand, considers himself the owner of Hyram himself. Things become increasingly precarious, hysterical and delightfully absurd as it is revealed that not only is Nudie in strange, demonic love with Hyram but also that he is a vampire. This, of course, wreaks terrific havoc on Hyram’s life and the lives of all those close to him.
Graham Cuthbertson’s book, adapted from McCormack’s novel is immediately captivating and tightly woven together with Matthew Barber’s incredibly catchy tunes. The characters speak in a wonderful accentuated country drawl and have their own particular vernaculars of no specific place, yet that conjure up distinct imagery of cowboys, deserts and dusty open highways. Barber’s music reflects this same ambiance. There is one song in particular which is essentially the tune that Johnny Cash would have written if he had wanted to sing about venereal disease. Some of the lyrics are deliberately hokey, but in a way that only adds to the joyful humour and pastiche of the genre. Without exception, they are all knee slappin’, toe tappin,’ belly laughin’ romps of great bluesy exuberance.
Andrew Shaver’s direction is flawless to a literally magical effect. The movements of the two vampire characters are incredibly stylized to emphasize the disparity between Hyram’s reality and his fall through the figurative looking glass. Greg Kramer, as Nudie, makes objects disappear before the audience’s eyes and all the characters use brilliant physical comedy to wonderful effect. Shaver is blessed with a truly extraordinary cast, who execute and personify his concept vibrantly.
Gemma James-Smith is beautifully rugged and practical as Hyram’s wife Audrey, a strong matronly gal who used to make all her husband’s clothes before Nudie’s flashy fashion razzle-dazzled him away from his marriage. Alexis Taylor is the ultimate in sweetness and propriety as Bobbi, a maid who is immediately charmed by Hyram’s charisma and success. Daniel Brochu is incredibly reminiscent of Yosemite Sam come to life as Erskine Mole, an aging country and western singer who is adamant that Hyram will not usurp him as the headlining superstar of the West. Matthew Raudsepp is all charm and dreaminess as Hyram Woodside, with a gorgeous smooth voice and charisma pouring out of every fibre of his intricately designed costumes. Kyle Gatehouse doesn’t say a single word as Dr. Wertham, a round shouldered henchman, whose physicality is bewitching and who can steal a scene with a raise of his eyebrow. Yet, this show belongs most, it seems, to Greg Kramer as Nudie, who has created an eerily charming, entirely riveting villain who is exorbitantly fun to watch.
Haunted Hillbilly is a raucous ride of ridiculousness, and I think you’ll likely enjoy every second of it.
It plays at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson Avenue) on August 15th at 12:30 PM.