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Kings & Queens of Country weaves a story of the genre’s icons

A latecomer to country music, Drayton Entertainment’s Alex Mustakas learned to love the genre, embracing its legendary songs and performers.

His father-in-law listened to nothing but traditional country music, so spending time with him out in the garage, for instance, meant being exposed to all that history.

“This is some of the greatest music ever written. It’s great storytelling,” said Mustakas, who was moved to create Kings & Queens of Country, a theatrical salute to the artists who put Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry on the map.

The show opened this week at the St. Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre, running through to Christmas.

In putting together the production, the first big challenge was choosing the music, paring down the list so it wasn’t a 10-hour show – “There’s so much great music.” In the end, more than 100 songs are used, many in medley form to avoid making it an all-day affair at the theatre.

With an emcee that offers up continuity in the storyline and some laughs, the show runs chronologically through some of the earliest country stars – Ernest Tubb, Dottie West, Faron Young – through to the 1980s’ sounds of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, just before the emergence of New Country.

A wide-ranging blend, notes Mustakas. There’s the likes of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’,” John Denver’s “Country Roads,” Glen Campbell’s “Like a Rhinestone Cowboy” and many more. Add to the list  Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Dottie West’s “Country Sunshine,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”

Oh, and there’s some Johnny Cash to get things rolling, a medley of five or six songs in about three minutes sets the tone.

The cast of Kings & Queens of Country wear many hats in presenting the songs that defined the genre. The play opened this week, running through to Christmas. [Submitted]

A cast of young performers have embraced the music, much of which was entirely new to some of them, Mustakas explained, laughing that it was probably their grandparents who listened to the music.

Although Kings & Queens of Country presents iconic music and performers, it’s not a tribute show in the traditional sense  – “We’re trying not to do the lookalikes” – but rather a tribute to the music.

“We’re not trying to mimic the performers.”

J. Sean Elliott delivers the laughs throughout the show as the goofy narrator, Wilbur, weaving songs together with humour and singing a few tunes of his own. Elliott has appeared in many musicals and comedies across the country including numerous productions for Drayton Entertainment, most recently in Million Dollar Quartet. Al Braatz made his Drayton Entertainment debut earlier this season as Asher in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Tyler Check was Carl Perkins in Million Dollar Quartet, and Michael Cox has appeared in numerous musicals across the country including Les Misérables for Drayton Entertainment. Kevin Dempsey is a staple in the Toronto music scene and has played drums in various Drayton Entertainment productions, including Red Rock Diner, Anything Goes, A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, Big Band Legends, and Swing!, among others.

Earl Filsinger has toured Canada and the U.S. as a lead guitar player in numerous bands; he has also played for various musicals including Man of La Mancha, Evita, and Big River.  Kelly Holiff, making her Drayton Entertainment debut, has previously appeared as Miss Stacey in the Charlottetown production of Anne of Green Gables, as well as in a variety of productions across Ontario. Julia McLellan previously appeared as Val in A Chorus Line at the Stratford Festival, in the Toronto and U.S. National Tour productions of Kinky Boots and recently as Annabel Glick in Drayton’s Lucky Stiff. Steve Thomas is a well-known composer, pianist and music director who has worked on a variety of productions across North America for Theatre Aquarius, The Elgin Theatre, Lighthouse Festival Theatre, Vancouver Playhouse and Charlottetown Festival, among others. Most recently, he was the music director for Thoroughly Modern Millie in St. Jacobs.

The eight performers on stage jump through songs and eras, meaning they’re literally wearing a lot of hats throughout the show. Together, they bring an energy to the music that audiences will enjoy, says Mustakas.

“It’s certainly resonating,” he said of the early buzz to the show. “There’s an appetite for this kind of music.”

The intimate confines of the St. Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre means audiences will get an up-close experience with the music.

“It’ll feel like it’s right in your living room, like a kitchen party,” he said.

Kings & Queens of Country runs at St. Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre until December 24. Tickets are $46 for adults and $27 for youth under 20 years of age, available online at www.draytonentertainment.com or by calling the box office at 1-855-drayton (372-9866).

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