It’s remarkable to live so far from this country’s theatrical centers and yet have so many companies, including community theatres, that produce new plays. The Parkway Playhouse (in this case, in association with Occasional Theater) goes most one better: it produces brand-new, full-scale musicals. Better still, in the last two seasons (the fourth and fifth of Andrew Gall’s tenure as producing artistic director), Parkway’s premiere musicals have been created by locally based artists using indigenous materials.
The Ballad of Tom Dooley, with a book by Brenda Lilly and Ken Stone, music by Jan Powell, lyrics by Ken Stone, and direction by Michael Lilly, is based on the sad tale of Tom Dula, a Confederate soldier from North Carolina. Dula returned home after the Civil War to a romantic mess that led to the 1866 murder of Laura Foster, who was, presumably, running away to elope with Tom, who was, in turn, convicted of her murder and hanged.
From that moment on, all has been rumor, speculation, and legend. An old folk song about the murder and its aftermath, “Tom Dooley,” was turned into a huge hit by The Kingston Trio in 1958. Their version, with its famous refrain (“Hang down your head, Tom Dooley/Hang down your head and cry”) is short on detail, even though a good deal is known about the circumstances and the people involved.
The creative team for The Ballad of Tom Dooley has chosen to use the names of actual individuals but to diverge in significant ways from what we think we know about them. There are many ways to tell a story, though, as this show literally reminds us more than once. The Ballad may have no greater claim to “truth” than any other narrative on the subject, but it does have its own, satisfying, internal logic.
As presented, the town to which Tom (Alex Sheets) returns with his cousin Jasper (Joe Callahan), who lost an arm in the war, is still occupied by Union soldiers. Winsome-looking Laura Foster (Mary Katherine O’Donnell) isn’t being courted so much as pressured romantically by Sgt. Grayson (Rob Taylor), who can win her, at least for the night, with the smallest of gifts.
Tom and Jasper are received as heroes by the townspeople, and Laura throws herself at Tom, who fails to resist her charms. Soon, though, he’s entranced by Ann Melton (Rachelle Roberts), a somewhat older woman who’s married to the elderly, and rich, Old Man Melton (Mark Jones, in one of several roles), and who hires Tom to work the land when Tom’s mother Mary (Minnie Powell) is threatened with the foreclosure of her humble home. Tom, Jasper, and other exasperated townsfolk engage in harassment of the Union troops, in an attempt to chase them from town, but Jasper is killed and Tom, breaking down, confesses to Ann that he was never a hero at all.
The love between Tom and Ann continues to grow, and when Old Man Melton sickens and dies, they hope for a long life together. But Laura has become pregnant and tries to force Tom to stay with her (though she conceals her secret shame). After that, all becomes murky, but it seems relatively clear that Sgt. Grayson (always presented as a villain) killed Laura with Tom’s knife. In the end, Tom decides to accept responsibility for Laura’s death in court, rather than risk dragging Ann (who is also suspected, and who has a secret of her own) into the mess. He also makes a deal with the decent Col. Weston (Jim France) to stop all foreclosures, and to leave the town in peace, if Tom accepts his fate and goes to the gallows.
The Ballad frames its version of the Tom Dula story as a ghost story, which is only semi-successful, as is the entire enterprise. The creative team — seasoned professionals all — has done a more than competent job, especially with the music, which runs the gamut from bluegrass to classic American musical style to post-Sondheim complexity. (It’s never entirely clear why one style is favored over another, which the team may wish to explore further.)
Particularly in the first act, far too much exposition is embodied in the lyrics; throughout, the dialogue is brief and sketchy, at best. The music is played live by the actors (including members of local bluegrass band The Lucky Streaks), and they do a fine job; but, despite some strong voices, the more complicated music is frequently beyond the reach of the game cast. Though the second act adds richness to some of the characters, Tom in particular, on the whole the work feels less than fully dimensional.
But Parkway and the Occasional have taken on what may well be an impossible task. Most musicals are developed over many years and through multiple productions, with an enormous amount of revision along the way. This version of Ballad has been mounted in a mere five weeks, and most of the actors have limited experience.
Think of this, then, as a bold first step worthy of support. There’s much to admire in The Ballad of Tom Dooley, and one can only hope that this first step won’t be its last.
The Ballad of Tom Dooley. Book by Brenda Lilly and Ken Stone. Music by Jan Powell. Lyrics by Ken Stone. Directed by Michael Lilly. Musical Direction by Jan Powell. Set Design by Kasendra Bell. Technical Direction by Bruce Chuvala. Lighting Design by Jason Williams. Costume Design by Mary Olson. Production Stage Manager: Jen Strand. Performances through Saturday, August 21. Reservations at 828-682-4285 or www.parkwayplayhouse.com
With Jason Cameron (Isaiah/1st Balladeer), Anthony Hansley (Doc Miller/2nd Balladeer), Amanda Pisano (Perline/3rd Balladeer), Minnie Powell (Mary Dooley/4th Balladeer), Ron Powell (Ezra Bascom/5th Balladeer), Mary Katherine O’Donnell (Laura Foster/6th Balladeer), Rob Taylor (Sgt. Grayson/7th Balladeer), Jim France (Col. Weston/Judge/8th Balladeer), Joe Callahan (Jasper Teague/9th Balladeer), Mark Jones (Old Man Melton/Vance/Townsman/10th Balladeer), Alex Sheets (Tom Dooley), Rachelle Roberts (Ann Melton), Michael Redlinger (Pvt. Henson), and Kenny Jobe (Fiddle Player/Barnett).
Photo caption: Tom Dooley (played by Alex Sheets, center) and Perline, a mountain girl, (played by Ami Pisano, R) find themselves in the middle of a twisted love triangle and at the center of suspicion over the brutal murder of Laura Foster (played by Mary Katherine O’ Donnell, l) in the world-premiere production of The Ballad of Tom Dooley playing through August 21 at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville.