In the program notes for Choking Out the Kudzu: The Musical, Director Billie Colombaro says that this show began its journey into being back in 1992. Interestingly, this was just one year after the hit movie Fried Green Tomatoes was a big hit on movie screens all over the country. Similarly, the new musical, currently on stage at Greenbelt Arts Center, tells the story of a middle aged woman with a troublesome marriage and whom no one seems to take seriously. Enter in a nursing home resident who she starts visiting, and voila! The victimized character learns to be more assertive, improves her self-esteem, and starts to follow her dreams of a better life for herself.
In the movie, the nursing home resident is a terrific story teller who reminisces about her own past as fodder for encouraging her visitor. In the Kudzu musical, we don’t have any context for how Bessie (BJ Berman Angstadt), the elderly woman, came to be such a font of strength and encouragement. She reveals nothing of her past that might have led her to such insights about life. I sat there curious as to what Bessie’s marriage must have been like, and if she had been a teacher or led a Sunday school class or something, to be able to be so convincing with her advice to Stella Pierce (Joy Gerst.)
The two adult male characters – Bessie’s son (Tom Howley) who appears in just the opening scene when he impatiently moves her into the home, and Stella’s husband, Frank (emphatically portrayed by Aref Dajani) are off the charts in their disgust for these women. Frank slings nasty barbs about “the old hag.” Stella visits, never seeming to realize the influence she has on his wife. Frank’s repeated booming, angry tirades are sheer negativity, but the character as written is one-dimensional. As a result, his song “Gone” seems out of left field – immediately regretting what just happened doesn’t feel authentic.
That said, there are plenty of the 25 (that is not a typo!) songs to like about this show; Betty Ladas’ music and lyrics suggest she’s had a lot of fun writing in different song styles and genres – “You Gotta Go Up” and “Stand Up” are peppy gospel infused tunes inspiring sung by Bessie’s nursing aide, Gardenia (Tia Rountree). Bessie has several introspective ballads that showcase her lovely voice: the opening song “I Can’t Live in Your World” and “Walk,” among others. Stella’s upbeat “Lookin’ For You” brought to mind 80s pop music, and she performs “Sons of the Mothers” with heartfelt patriotism. Stella’s daughter, Robin (MerryRose Howley) and son Adam (Cole Sitilides) as well as their Dad, Frank, each have turns to share their singing talents, as well. It’s a shame that the pre-recorded keyboard only soundtrack detracts from the performance. It has a tinny sound, and there were several songs that I wished had fewer verses just because of the orchestration.
One musical highlight of the show was “Kudzu,” a hilariously staged rap number with Bessie and Gardenia advising Stella to pull out the metaphorical vines that are choking her and holding her back in life. Was this a nod to Fried Green Tomatoes as well? When the opening film credits roll, the camera catches some graffiti on the side of a building which reads “Kudzu Kills.” (In case you are unfamiliar with plants, kudzu is an invasive species which climbs over other plants and kills them by depriving them of sunlight.) So it is a fitting image for this new musical, as the “kudzu” of dysfunctional family relationships almost overpower Stella. With Bessie’s help she finds the strength to rip it out live in sunshine. That kudzu analogy is so good, I would have liked to have had a snazzy reprise of this show’s namesake song as the finale instead of the defensive, overbearing sounding, “I Have a Right.”
Unfortunately, during this performance there were several technical problems, including excessively long scene changes in silence, and missed lighting cues. I am confident this will be corrected for the next performance.
GAC is to be congratulated for taking a creative risk in mounting a production of an unknown musical co-penned by a local resident Betty Lardas. It was also gutsy for the show’s playwright and director, Billie Colombaro, to largely stage the show remotely using Skype, as she lives in New York City.
Choking Out the Kudzu has had two staged readings, in 2007 and 2014, so perhaps Kudzu will continue to organically grow and further develop its plot and concept for future productions. It has a lot of promise.
If you are looking for a feminist musical that exclaims “I am Woman, Hear me Roar!” then Choking Out the Kudzu is your kind of show.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with an intermission.
Meet the cast.
The Choking On the Kudzu website. You can hear some of the music here.