Picture cruising along in your car, bobbing your head to your favorite driving tunes.
That’s the feel Jim Wann envisions for the songs he wrote for his new production, Jim’s Garage, which has its world premiere this week at Flat Rock Playhouse.
And if a rehearsal one morning last week is any indication of what’s to come, then the show will likely deliver on Wann’s vision. The mellow rock numbers the cast members were rehearsing benefited both from hummable melodies and easy-to-remember lyrics.
“We’re working hard, we’re dreaming large — right here at Jim’s Garage,” sang the musician/actors in the small ensemble.
In another song, “American Steel,” lanky actor/bass guitarist Ritt Henn (as the character Z.Z.) crooned: “In a ’56 T-bird, I sang along with Freebird.” That quirky verse is followed by the chorus: “American steel — I’m not just talking about an automobile.”
Wann’s wife and co-collaborator, Patricia Miller, readily admits that the show is no darkly ironic, cutting-edge lament. In fact, she says “American Steel” serves as a sort of upbeat anthem for Jim’s Garage by interlacing a love of old cars with a tribute to the country’s spirit.
“The music is down-home and friendly to the ear and the characters are accessible,” offers Wann.
But the show does promise a twist on traditional musical theater, in which cowboys or gang members typically can break into song for no apparent reason, accompanied by unseen instruments.
In contrast, the actors in Jim’s Garage both sing and accompany themselves on instruments that include acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric bass, keyboard and an oddball type of ukelele called a fluke. Wann calls the style “musician’s theater,” which he pioneered as principal author, composer, leading man and guitarist for Pump Boys and Dinettes, which had a healthy Broadway run in the ’80s.
Wann admits that the style requires a specific type of versatility not usually demanded of performers in traditional musical theater. Happily, he and Miller report that the cast seems more than up to the challenge. Along with Henn, the production features Jason and Linda Edwards (a brother and sister duo originally from Weaverville) playing Jim and Ethel, respectively, Jenny Littleton (as Dee), Mary Faber (Ivy), Mike Masters (Merle) and Miles Aubrey (Purvis).
“We got lucky,” says director Robin Farquhar.
Farquhar thinks the musician’s-theater approach will appeal both to fans of musical theater and those who would never dream of setting foot near a conventional production. But that will require a delicate balance, as revealed in the rehearsal.
At the end of a rendition of “American Steel,” Miller told Farquhar and Wann she was concerned the song might be too loud for some senior citizens in the audience.
“The flip side is if it’s too weak, it’s not going to deliver any emotional power,” suggests Wann. “That’s the conundrum — it’s written to be played the way it’s being played.”
Though they were still pondering a solution at lunch, Wann thought they might solve their dilemma by trying an unplugged version of the song.
Like Pump Boys and Dinettes — which has been around now for 20 years — Jim’s Garage shares the American preoccupation with the automobile. The former was a musical revue about four guys at a gas station and two sisters who reveled in home cooking. The newest effort features four guys — plus a woman mechanic and two other women characters — at an auto garage in the fictional mountain town of Blue Ridge, N.C.
“There’s something about Western North Carolina that resonates with cars as symbols of freedom,” says Wann.
Along with rock, the 20 all-original songs in the production span the genres of bluegrass, old-time ballads, country, gospel, and late-’40s jazz and swing.
“It’s four decades of retro,” declares Wann.
In a nod to the production’s setting, one of the numbers is appropriately titled “Miss Buncombe County.” (Wann says he considered using the county names of Madison or Henderson, but Buncombe rolled off the tongue more easily.)
Despite its strong retro leanings, Jim’s Garage is set in the present. The character of the woman mechanic, Dee, even alludes to contemporary notions of fuel conservation through her goal of rigging up a car to get 100 miles to the gallon.
Native Southerners (Miller hails from Vidalia, Ga. and Wann is from Chattanooga, Tenn.), the couple now call New York’s Hudson Valley home. But Jim’s Garage also ended up coming to life in the South; they spent this past winter working on it together while staying in Tybee Island, Ga. Wann composed the music and lyrics while Miller wrote the dialogue — a process completed in the record time of about three months.
One reason for speed was that Farquhar (who serves as Flat Rock Playhouse’s executive/artistic director) decided early on in the production’s development that he wanted to stage it this summer, notes Miller. As a result, the couple was able to consult with him along the way.
“It’s been a very happy process and sometimes that’s not the case,” Miller offers. “We are very grateful and really enjoyed this because it’s been so supportive and positive, which can be kind of rare.”
Typically at this stage in a brand-new production, Wann notes that they would be rewriting like crazy and pulling their hair out because something wasn’t working. But not this time.
“It’s almost like this show was birthed, fully realized,” he muses.
Sort of like a car that rolls off the assembly line, ready to hit the open road.