It’s no small feat to write a comedy about contemporary Southern rurality that refrains from stereotyping or “punching down” at small-town living while still managing to be funny. The new musical “Paradise,” running at Austin Playhouse through February 3 (and co-produced by Los Angeles-based Frost Entertainment), accomplishes this task with charm and high energy. It’s a promising piece of musical theater that will hopefully continue to evolve.
“Paradise” — with book, music and lyrics co-written by Bill Robertson, Tom Sage and Cliff Wagner — is set in the present day in a southern American coal mining town, the titular Paradise, facing the aftermath of its mine shutting down. With only a little more than 100 residents left in Paradise, the town has seen better days, and the few colorful characters who remain seem resigned to their bleak future. Enter John Cyrus Mountain, a Southern reverend with eyes on building his own megachurch. He also has a plan to make the town rich by producing a reality television show that paints the townsfolk in the worst possible light.
The first act revolves around the confrontation between the townsfolk and the out-of-towners who attempt to convince the citizens of Paradise to participate in the reality show, with particular emphasis on the reticence of the forlorn ingénue Louanne (Kelsey Joyce). The show shines brightest in this act, which riffs on a number of tropes about Southern living while simultaneously subverting them. Rather than making fun of the people of Paradise, the satirical edge of the play is focused on Mountain and the TV network, examining (through a good-naturedly goofy lens) the ways in which institutions like the church and the media take advantage of economically disadvantaged populations.
This satire is at its strongest in the show’s musical numbers, which feature several memorable tunes (performed by a dynamite on-stage bluegrass quartet) and a focus on comedy reminiscent of musicals like “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon.” With songs like “Greater Than Thou” (sung by the preacher) and “Jesus Is Deep Inside Me” (sung by a character named Chastity, who’s a former stripper), the music is simultaneously smart, funny and pointedly critical of the hypocrisies of much of our current culture.
Because this show originated in Los Angeles before coming to Austin, its entire cast is L.A.-based. Though the entire ensemble is top-notch, Jon Root as Mountain particularly shines, with a commanding stage presence that is simultaneously charming, smarmy and menacing, while also matching the tenor of some real Southern preachers with pitch-perfect resonance. Dave Florek, as the cranky and blind self-described “hillbilly” Ezra Johnson, is just as delightful, delivering punchline after punchline with unflagging acidic wit.
The second act of “Paradise,” unfortunately, divulges from the success of the first with a somewhat baffling — and wholly unnecessary — narrative twist that takes the story in a new direction away from the clever satirical promise of its set-up. Though the wrap-up is still entertaining, it is deflated somewhat and limps to an ending despite the earlier running start out of the gate. However, this is still an early production of “Paradise,” and thus this version may not quite be the final product. This gives the creative team the room to make changes for future mountings of the new musical.
The text’s problems in its second act notwithstanding, “Paradise” holds up as a warm, funny, goofy and clever piece of musical comedy, with a dynamite bluegrass sound that is worth checking out in this production as it (hopefully) continues its development in the future.