Dramatizing the life of a music star is tricky, because mere biography seldom achieves the emotional eloquence of the songs that made the performer a star in the first place. Everything we want to know and believe about the star, the music has already told us. "Stand by Your Man: The Tammy Wynette Story," which opened Thursday at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, fails to overcome this hazard. Still, the production is a joy to witness.
Mark St. Germain's two-act play opens with Wynette watching her own funeral (which was held at the Ryman in 1998). This device enables the singer to unite with her abrasive, wisecracking mother (also dead) for a journey through their shared tumultuous past.
Nicolette Hart, who plays Wynette, was vocally tepid in the opening number, but her character quickly gained force and sympathy. Jim Lauderdale can now add "/actor" to his usual "singer/songwriter" designation. He was flawless as Wynette's one-time husband and all-time duet partner, George Jones, and the audience was with him from his first note on. Susan Mansur demonstrated exquisite timing as Wynette's scolding mother; she got most of the big laughs, but her posture and hillbilly mannerisms seemed rooted more in "Hee Haw" than in history.
The play manages to be both too detailed and too elliptical, often substituting a torrent of fan-magazine trivia for insight. It dutifully takes us through each of Wynette's five marriages, even though only three of them appear to have mattered, and lingers, presumably for name value alone, on Wynette's relationship with Burt Reynolds. It devotes an entire sequence to the singer's 1992 music video, "Justified & Ancient," with English rock group the KLF, but fails to mention the far more career-critical use of her music in "Five Easy Pieces," the 1970 movie starring Jack Nicholson. And do we really need to be reminded at great length of Wynette's tiff-in-a-teapot with Hillary Clinton?
Except for suggesting a father fixation (Wynette's died when she was an infant), the play does little to probe the singer's complex personality and her accelerating drug dependence. Were her torments chiefly physical or psychological? We don't get enough information to decide. Near the end of the play, she gestures out to the loving audience and proclaims, "They were my addiction. Everything else was just to stop the pain in between." Maybe so.
In spite of these weaknesses, the play succeeds because it was designed for fans that already know Wynette, so when dramatic analysis falters, there's always a song. "Stand by Your Man" features nearly 30 of them, including many of Wynette's and Jones' most beloved duet and solo hits. Several of the lead actors double as members of the house band. Steel player Kevin Owens gives a marvelous performance as Wynette's abrupt and acerbic producer, Billy Sherrill. While visiting the ailing singer, he gruffly points out that there is no appreciable audience for "Stand by Your Scar Tissue."
Dennis C. Maulden's curtainless staging is stark, muted and admirably efficient for the many scene changes. Bridget R. Bartlett's costumes bring a gallery of Wynette's familiar album covers and publicity photos to life.
The play's real workhorse is Tricia Paoluccio, whose dizzying variety of roles ranges from young Tammy to a dead-on Dolly Parton (who muses at the bedside of her friend, "I think that's why [God] gave us talent he screwed up our hair"). The play bristles with such comic one-liners, and the music is irresistible.
First-nighters in the audience included Wynette's four daughters; her husband, George Richey; Billy Sherrill; Grand Ole Opry stars Ernie Ashworth and Roy Drusky; singer Deborah Allen; and songwriter Glen Sutton.
"Stand by Your Man" runs through October 28.