News Column

Review - 'Country Cooking' heaping helping of music variety show

July 3, 2013

YellowBrix

July 03--Is there a harder working person than Zach Hanner in Wilmington show business?

Facts

What: "Country Cookin' with the Good Ol' Boys," a dinner theater variety show by Zach Hanner, presented by TheatreNOW

When: 6 p.m. doors, 7 p.m. show, Saturdays through Aug. 17

Where: TheatreNOW, 19 S. 10th St., Wilmington

Tickets: $42, $30 for kids under 12, includes food and show but not beverages or gratuity.

Details: 399-3669 (box office hours are noon-2 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday) or www.TheatreWilmington.com

The man plays in two or three bands, stages a weekly show for children, wrote an original play this year which he also directed, appeared in another sporting an Irish accent, is the go-to host for local awards shows (the Wilmington Theater Awards and Encore's Best Of Awards) and somehow finds time to pen the occasional story for the StarNews, all in between auditioning for film roles.

It's exhausting just thinking about it, but don't tire out on me just yet, because Hanner is also the artistic director for TheatreNOW, and he masterminds and stars in that venue's latest dinner theater production, "Country Cookin' with the Good Ol' Boys," an impressively entertaining country music variety show.

Hanner has assembled a crack band of some of the area's best players to deliver both country music classics and obscure gems, and the songs are broken up with cornpone, "Hee-Haw"-style skits equally filled with groaners and genuinely funny moments. Hanner also wrote the show's saucy theme song, sings most of its tunes in a strong, clear tenor and serves as the show's impresario, a fella by the name of Jocephus "Smoky" Williams.

Essentially, Hanner is reprising, with a few tweaks, the title role he played twice for City Stage in "Hank Williams: Lost Highway." "Country Cookin'" includes two songs by Williams, "Lovesick Blues" and "Lonesome Whistle," and Hanner borrows one of the show's funniest bits from "Lost Highway" in which he and Bill Ladd, the show's steel and electric guitar player, trade insults between breakneck riffs:

"I'll have you know I went to college, stupid."

"Well, you come back stupid, too."

Speaking of Ladd, the longtime North Carolina musician is very nearly worth the not-cheap price of admission for his work on the pedal steel. Playing the instrument would seem to be a lost art these days considering how few people take it up anymore, and Ladd has got to be one of the best players in the state. He makes the instrument sing and weep, and his playing gives the whole show the sound of legitimacy.

Ladd even gets to show his acting chops during one skit that's part "Hee-Haw," part "Steel Magnolias," as he and Hanner, both in drag, trade gossip in a beauty salon with Melissa Stanley (who provides comic relief and back-up vocals throughout the show) and Tiffany Reece Forsythe.

Forsythe, the lead singer of Wilmington bluegrass/country favorites The Barnraisers, is a powerhouse. She finds the emotion in Dolly Parton's poignant Lynn Anderson cover "If I Kiss You (Will You Go Away)," shares duets with both Hanner ("Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man") and Alex "Big Al" Hall (more on him later) and adds energy to every number with her strong backing vocals and perky dancing.

As for Hall, the highly-thought-of Wilmington singer, songwriter and banjo picker puts in a winning portrayal as band member "Bashful Andy" and does justice to two songs that serve as a George Jones tribute, "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and "Walk Through This World With Me," with his finely tuned, sensitive voice.

For his part, Hanner never takes things too seriously and has lots of fun with such novelties as "Knot Hole," a catchy ditty about the naughty things that can be seen through the wall, and forgotten classics like "The Lord Knows I'm Drinking," a response to a small-town busybody. His voice isn't quite deep enough to nail Ernest Tubb's wry "Thanks A Lot," but it's nice to hear the song anyway, done in a more traditional, upbeat style than the slowed-down ballad Chapel Hill's Two Dollar Pistols turned it into when they recorded it a decade and a half ago.

Helping carry every song are two of Wilmington's best players, Adrian Varnam on mandolin and fiddle, and the ever-busy Jones Smith on bass. Both have their moments to shine in the solo spotlight. (Some performances will include Wilmington singer and actress Rasa Love, who wasn't in the show on opening night.)

In between the music and the tomfoolery, time is filled by YouTube videos like Great Moments in Redneck History and ancient commercials for Country Corn Flakes and other bygone products. Hanner even does some improv with a Mad Lib country song that was pretty funny on opening night.

It's called "Country Cookin'" for a reason, of course, and that reason is the fare of chef Denise Gordon, which accompanies the entertainment. A sweetened butter made a pre-show offering of biscuits and corn bread a delight, and a meal of fried catfish and sweet potatoes were fine but undistinguished, as if Gordon were worried about gussying up such humble fare. Gordon's creativity shines through, however, with an exquisite banana pudding pie for dessert.

There are some technical things to be worked out in "Country Cookin'" -- Hanner's vocals are a little muddy at times, and, at more than two hours, a couple of numbers could be cut.

Still, while the price -- $42, not including drinks or tip -- will be tough for some to swing, you certainly get a lot of quality entertainment and good food for your money.

Hanner's even thinking about taking the all-star band he's formed out on some local dates, which would be cool since no one's really doing the classic country thing around town right now. So if you miss the dinner theater production, or just want to see the band again, The Good Ol' Boys may be coming to a venue near you sooner rather than later.

John Staton: 343-2343

Twitter: @Statonator

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(c)2013 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)

Visit the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) at www.starnewsonline.com

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