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Front-row reviews

What: The Telling Tree
Where: O’Henry’s
When: Sunday, June 27

“You know, I used to be gay,” says Seamus, his voice shifting slightly between an Irish lilt and a Scottish brogue. “Then, they changed the meaning of the word. Now, I just have to be happy.”

And the crowd dissolves into laughter. This group has likely heard a gay joke or two in their time. After all, The Cheap Theatre Company has chosen to debut The Telling Tree at O’Henry’s, better known as Asheville’s most established gay bar. And all around, straight and queer folk alike roar with laughter.

Lee Ramey, the man behind the monologue, has created a brief but amply entertaining one-man show. Essentially a long tale by Seamus, an aging Irish bard, The Telling Tree is about young men leaving their villages to commit heroic deeds, with the fate of nations hanging in the balance. And when these lads trudge off, with the bloated braggarts of the town wishing them farewell, their dreams of glory quickly become lost amid the harsh realities of broken lives and untimely deaths.

Ramey is a talented singer/actor, infusing his stories with a humble charm that never comes across as patronizing. He frequently laughs at his own jokes, making the piece seem extremely informal while still somehow retaining the feel of a professional production. The show’s only real distraction — and this only for real sticklers — is how his accent sometimes shifts.

Seamus sings and jokes his way through the darkness of wartime, offering up the traditional tune “Cockles and Mussels,” though leaving out that song’s tragic heroine, Molly Malone; and, in “Greensleeves,” lamenting the lust-obsessed pining of the marching men.

Despite its lightness, though, Ramey’s production doesn’t flinch from the agony of war. Bloody details and gory descriptions counterpoint Seamus’ comical asides about horny lads and lasses.

The bard’s story ends with Jimmy, a young soldier who finds his lonely, bloody fate on the battlefield, his friends gone and his would-be glory dripping out of his wounds. To this fallen image, Ramey croons “Danny Boy,” a song that could easily have collapsed as too saccharine, but instead rises through Seamus’ tear-choked pipes honest and sincere.

After a brief intermission, Ramey rejoined the crowd as himself, telling a series of so-called “fractured fairy tales” — short stories occasionally even more twisted than those of the Brothers Grimm.

It was during this part of the show that Ramey catered more to the traditional virtues of the crowd. When he told the story of the giant, limp-wristed wild man with the lisp who shrieked in shocked horror when he accidentally tripped and fell into the embrace of a willing miller’s daughter, the room exploded in laughter. Other tales, like the retelling of the story of Groundhog Day with Walter the Woodchuck (“I know it’s corny,” said Ramey) were welcomed with similar, well, gaiety.

The show has extended its run, playing at 4 p.m. July 18 and Aug. 1 at O’Henry’s.

Listening room (album reviews)

73% Post-Consumer Novelty, Mad Tea Party (Daisyworks Music, 2004)

Mad Tea Party’s sophomore release shows a side of the duo that didn’t quite come through on their 2002 debut Be in Life: sheer silliness.

Whimsy prevails over social consciousness this time (what other band can believably sing about chivalrous frogs gone courting?), though the album does contain one particularly political tune, “Baby, It’s Time to Vote,” an upbeat ditty about the importance of casting your ballot. Throughout, kazoos, slide whistles and ukuleles are employed to full effect.

Best Track: “Beedle Um Bum.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


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