Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Counter-Culture Lite

By Hadley Hury

JULY 28, 1997: 

any folks discoed their ways peaceably through a blue haze in the 1970s and -- some of you who were there may ask -- why not? American society needed a break. Many of its young adults had grown up through a decade of political assassinations (the Kennedys, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and others), growing cynicism toward public life (the Watergate hearings and subsequent resignation of Richard Nixon), and the zeitgeist-dividing nightmare of the war in Vietnam. It's no wonder that, for a few years, it seemed serious and decisive enough to grow a Fu Manchu moustache, or take a class in macrame or organic gardening, or watch Saturday Night Live before heading out to find the nearest strobe light. It was the era of counter-culture lite.

Walking in very straight lines on the margins of this laid-back historical interlude were some other young people. They thought television's Mary Richards was probably about as feminist a gal as anyone needed to be, that disco was almost as nasty as black eyeliner, and that war protest and drug-ravaged communism were necessarily concurrent pursuits. The more industrious among them might be seen waving "We Want Nixon, Four More Years" signs at the 1972 Republican Convention or, later in the decade -- and like the cast of the current Theatre Memphis production of Have A Nice Day! -- spreading a particularly fierce brand of cheer.

They were going to teach the world to sing and turn the decadence of the decade into their own (rather vacuous) version of moral certitude with a great big Happy Face -- or they were going to go down in their white patent boots trying.

Written by Rick Lewis, Have A Nice Day! is a spoof based loosely on Up With People groups. Lewis is also the creator of a parody revue of singing girl-groups from the late '50s and early '60s (The Taffetas) and a sort of companion piece about guy-groups of the '50s (The Cardigans).

Have A Nice Day! is a collage of songs and medleys from the bubblegum ("Everything Is Beautiful," "I Believe In Music"), sentimental ("You Light Up My Life," "Please Come to Boston"), and other lighter ranges of pop music from the '70s. Interspersed are pop-rock songs that show the growing synergism of pop, rock, country ("American Pie") and a few of the era's notoriously vague, pseudo-philosophical ditties ("MacArthur's Park").

The premise of the revue is that this is the last performance for this particular Have A Nice troupe -- they are all about to graduate to new endeavors. In between the 40-some-odd songs they do, they share with the audience what the Have A Nice "experience" has taught them about life, how its philosophy will save the world, that glue-sniffing is bad, and that life wasn't meant for songs that are too "way out," depressing, or thought-provoking. (Group reaction to the lugubrious "One Tin Soldier" is one of the funniest bits in the show.)

Although, the "book" is slight, Lewis has carved fairly individualized personalities for the four performers -- and the good Theatre Memphis cast, directed smartly by Michael Duggan, kept the audience at a final preview performance well-entertained.

Carla McDonald is very funny and very real as Lori Anne, the pride of Chickasaw, Alabama. Her stage ego is nearly as big as her hair and is barely kept in check by her beauty-queen notions of ladylike behavior. McDonald also comes across with the most assured singing of the production. Her second-act "You Light Up My Life" is near-perfect parody -- sung with bluesy/gospelly power, but with vocal modulations and gestures that make the audience howl even as they are genuinely moved to realize that Lori Anne will be lucky to get a gig at Opryland, much less the weekly television variety show she assures us is her next destination.

Brian Foster plays Brian, whose pastel social conscience and honky version of a brunette Afro are about as "diverse" as Have A Nice troupers seem to get. He, too, provides both good acting -- a sort of sweet-natured, post-Aquarian goofus -- and some good singing as a much-needed support for the parody. Despite the shenanigans of his fellow cast members during the number, his "Sunshine On My Shoulders" is one of the show's few (perhaps, too few) instances of completely straightforward singing. It has a simple clarity that reminds us of some of what was good about '70s ballads.

Amy George, Marc Surles, and Anita Carol Duggan nicely round out the cast as Ronda (feisty, New Joisey, and jealous of Lori Anne), Kitt (a cleaned-up, squared-off, deeply polyester version of a California surfer), and Holly (whose detached dreaminess and not-quite-in-unison rhythms suggest she may not be taking the Have A Nice anti-marijuana message quite seriously enough).


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