...and another slice of pie

Hot Coffee

Written and directed by Mac Nelson
Lamb's Downstairs Showcase Theatre
130 W. 44th St. (575-0300)
Equity showcase (closes Nov. 22)
Review by Doug DeVita

What a sweet surprise! Mac Nelson's new musical, Hot Coffee, is a charming work that is so gosh-darn self-confident that it succeeds almost in spite of itself. Undemanding and simple almost to the point of mindlessness, it has enough vim and vigor that it becomes impossible to resist, like pecan pie after a fried-chicken dinner.

Slayton Ronald Reagan Megehee, from Hot Coffee, Mississippi (home of Stella Stevens, Dana Andrews and Georgia Mae Poundcake, 3rd alternate Miss America in 1992) comes to New York to become a star. After a particularly discouraging audition, in which he spills his guts out A Chorus Line style to an arrogant, pot-smoking producer/director, he decides to regroup back home in Hot Coffee. But Aunt Mary Evelyn makes a well-timed visit to Nyny, as she calls it, and while attending a taping of the Okra Winfield show (sic), causes Slayton to be "discovered." He very quickly rises to the top as the singing/dancing star of a new musical film sequel to "Gone With The Wind" and marries his high-school sweetheart. It's that kind of show, folks.

And yet, presented in a way that was totally unselfconscious, Hot Coffee refreshed despite the time-worn premise. Its pleasures came not from Nelson's unassuming material or direction but from its serene belief in itself and the winningly loopy characters Nelson created with obvious affection. Slayton, Aunt Mary Evelyn, and the other citizens of Hot Coffee, Mississippi are people who, while bordering on stereotype, never quite become the outrageous southern-gothic creatures that have come to typify the breed in contemporary fiction, film, and drama. Think Mayberry RFD and the tranquil pleasures afforded by The Andy Griffith Show. The satire is gentle, preferring to poke rather than jab, and the laughs, which came frequently, were hearty and true, without the bitter aftertaste of sanctimonious cynicism. The structure and pace were leisurely, following no particular form as the play meandered lazily along its course, and if it never exploded with the kind of adrenaline rush that is expected from a musical, that's because, dang it, it just didn't have the need.

The cast could not be bettered. As Slayton, Stacy Beam carried the show with an earthy, graceful appeal. Dorice Mary Ryan, a bit young for the 85-year-old Aunt Mary Evelyn, was nevertheless a force to be reckoned with, all stern, loving warmth. Standing out from the outstanding ensemble were the hilarious Zaiah Martinez and Mindy Miller - and Nate Cimmino, who had to be seen to be believed.

Robert DeClaire's beautifully painted backdrops, Mark Horton's colorful, lavish costumes and Justin Hullinger's facile lighting all contributed to the warmth of the show, as did Kevin Daniels's expert musical direction.

Cynical sophisticates beware: this is the kind of show that makes Annie seem Brechtian. But for the rest, it was a genuinely entertaining way to spend time with a sweet group of people who have just enough pepper to make them interesting. Shazaam !

(Also featuring Lori Engle, Randi Hoidalen, Mark Horton, Mac Nelson, Darius Nichols, David Parker, Christy Sanborn, Jason Umidi, and Joan-Marie Zimmerman.)
Box Score:

Book, Music, Lyrics: 1
Directing: 1 Musical Direction: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita