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EC Playhouse: A Musical Romp in Sunny-Sided Theater

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This past Friday I had the pleasure of attending Electric City (EC) Playhouse’s musical production of Keep on the Sunny Side. I was so enamored with the story, the songs, and the cast that today I am taking on the role of amateur theater critic. Keep on the Sunny Side is a touching, knee-slapping, benevolent, and delightfully executed biographical musical. The history of The Carter Family is an inspiring tale in its own right, but coupled with timeless folk classics performed by a talented ensemble cast, Sunny Side yields the perfect recipe for an enriching theatrical experience.

The Carter Family began recording music during the late 1920’s, and several Carter family members, including the late June Carter Cash, continued to popularize that distinctive backwoods Virginia sound throughout the 20th century. Many Carter Family songs – such as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBMb2Vgeofo, Can the Circle Be Unbroken, and (of course)

– are staples of Americana which have been covered and performed countless times across the decades.

One could offer no finer review of Keep on the Sunny Side than did the sold-out house of audience members through their reactions to the show. From the entertaining preshow performance (by Jimmy O Trio and friends) until the closing curtain call, audience members could not refrain from smiling, laughing, clapping, and singing along. Having had very limited exposure to this genre of music, I found myself tempted to leap into dance with each new song.

Some in the audience must have been old enough to recall when these songs were originally recorded, and they evidently felt that the EC Playhouse cast honored The Carter Family through their performance. Of particular note were the reactions of one elderly gentleman in the front row. He was clearly having trouble maintaining his posture, and at a few points during the show he struggled to keep his eyes open. But all the while a reminiscent smile shone through his weathered face, and with one hand rapping rhythmically against his knee, he never missed a beat.

The touching life story and endearingly simple folk songs of The Carter Family were faithfully executed by a strong ensemble cast. Sara Carter (played by Leslie Hardigree), wife of A.P. Carter and one of the original Carter Family members, was to me the central figure in the story. While Mrs. Hardigree performed well with the other actors, her strongest moments were Sara’s soliloquies and solo musical performances. Mrs. Hardigree appeared possessed by Sara Carter’s spirit, especially when emoting her more lamentatious times. Upon seeing the glistening moisture in Sara’s eyes as she struggles with a failing marriage, one cannot help but well with tears of sympathy. Mrs. Hardigree is also blessed with an angel’s voice. Her powerful range and emotive inflections add artistic beauty to the role.


A.P. (played by Keith Parker) and Maybelle Carter (played by Gail Brown) round out the original Carter Family cast. Both possess lovely voices and considerable skill with the guitar, especially Mrs. Brown whose performance belies extensive musical training. A.P. is at his most endearing as he courts young Sara outside her mountain home. Though not a young man himself, Mr. Parker is as believable portraying a youthful gentleman caller as he is portraying a recently departed soul. Aside from strutting her considerable musical aptitude, Mrs. Brown’s most memorable moments come as Maybelle comforts her dear sister Sara with feminine sympathy and sensible advice.

Strong performances in supporting roles add wonderful depth to the play. Wailing away with a high-amplitude and outrageously accented vocal performance, Janette Carter (played by Paula Dolittle) struggles to keep the Carter Family spirit alive. Even small bit parts, such as Timothy Vin’s portrayal of the long-haired, backwoods preacher presiding over A.P.’s funeral, contribute significantly to the show.

Special mention must go to Dr. Brinkley (played by Guy Harvley), his trusty assistant (played by Todd Barnette), and the play’s director Jimmy Burdette for the brilliantly-paced transition from Sara’s tearful marriage farewell to the hilarious antics of XERA Megawatt Radio. After a powerfully emotional set of scenes, the audience hungers for refreshing levity to clear their theatrical palates – and the director kindly delivers. Mr. Harvley displays his vocal versatility by portraying a heavily accented Texas con man imitating various other outrageous characters over the radio waves – while Mr. Barnette plays the semi-straight man, a perfect foil for Dr. Brinkley’s mischievous depravity. Considering the impeccable comic timing between them, one suspects that these two men have worked together before. They elicited hearty waves of laughter from the audience at all the right moments.

In closing, I want to express my sincere thanks to the EC Playhouse cast and crew for enriching my soul with a new (to me) classic set of musical masterpieces. I’ve been listening to original Carter Family recordings every day since I saw the play, and have been touched by their sincerity, simplicity, and benevolence. I’ve even begun learning how to play some of the songs on my guitar. Though the older crowd dominated attendance at last Friday’s performance, I have no doubt but that this music will live on forever. We will pass it on to our children, who will pass it on to our grandchildren, and so on, for as long as humanity endures. Beautiful classics like these never die. Now I’ll be doggone if that ain’t a Sunny-Sided sentiment!

--Dan Edge

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