Theatre review originally published in MetroBeat.
At Jim’s Garage, an auto repair shop in a small North Carolina town, you’re as likely to hear the mechanics singing as tune up your car. Jim, the amiable owner/operator, keeps a guitar on him at all times. As for the shop’s three mechanics, the laid-back ZZ burns up both an upright and electric bass, while Purvis, the town stud just back from the military, plays lead guitar and Dee usually sings back up. Dee is the newest mechanic, and she (yes, she) knows her way around a carburetor, sports an angelic voice and has a few ideas that might just shake up the auto industry. The shop’s receptionist, Ivy, also sings back-up and is certain that if she’s chosen as the pin-up girl for this year’s Jim’s Garage calendar, that’ll be her ticket to the big time. Merle, the straightlaced bookkeeper, takes his place on piano and mandolin. And if you’re really lucky, Purvis’ Aunt Ethyl may show up, eager to add her voice to the proceedings before inviting you to a pig-pulling.
That’s a typical day at Jim’s Garage, the endearing and “high octane” country musical now making its world premiere at Flat Rock Playhouse.
Jim’s Garage was created by Patricia Miller and her husband, Jim Wann, principal author/composer (and performer) of the similarly low-key country musical Pump Boys and Dinettes. Like Pump Boys, Jim’s Garage features likable characters, talented actors/musicians and winning songs. There’s some dialogue now and again, most of it addressed directly to the audience, but primarily the show is about the music. Fortunately, it’s great music, well-written and well-performed. Plus, the songs all address and illuminate the characters, allowing us to discover more and more about them as the evening goes on. As one of the characters mentions at one point, “the next song won’t make any sense unless we tell you this story.” The music and characters are brilliantly intertwined. Plus, there’s a bit of a message here as well. Let’s just say that after the show you may be a little more interested in checking out one of those gas/electric hybrid vehicles.
Jason Edwards stars as Jim, the proprietor, lead singer and guitar player of the garage. Edwards has an appealing voice and warm presence, smiling good-naturedly throughout most of the play. He serves as the show’s center, a stabilizing force for the diverse personalities surrounding him. In one of the even ¡ing’s highlights, Edwards and Jenny Littleton (as his romantic foil, Dee) sing “Something Like That,” a charming duet that leads to a more romantic “Journey From Heart to Heart” later in the show. Littleton, too, has a strong voice and strong presence. Her “Datin’ the Boss” number is another stand-out, demonstrating Littleton’s vocal power.
Another exceptionally strong performer is Linda Edwards, who makes her entrance with a hilarious ode to retirement, “Give Me the Mall.” She returns in the second act for a more emotionally affecting number, “Two Shiny Pennies,” that actually caused more than a few audience members to get a little misty-eyed. Perhaps, though, they were only still laughing after hearing bass player Ritt Henn’s ode to dirty laundry, “Nasty Ol’ Sox.” Mary Faber gets some nice moments as Ivy, including a remembrance of her mother’s life as “Miss Buncombe County.” She works well against Miles Aubrey’s Purvis, who plays a me an guitar and still harbors feelings for Ivy. Rounding out the cast is Mike Masters as Merle, the straightlaced piano-player who likes to stay “Perfectly in Control,” much to the audience’s delight.
All seven actors give easy, natural performances that make us forget, sometimes, that they’re speaking dialogue. They create memorable characters in quick, broad strokes, making us feel like we’ve known these folks forever. It’s a tribute to the actors and to the well-integrated book by Miller and Wann that many audience members felt comfortable enough to talk back to the performers when informed about their “car repairs” during intermission.
Wann creates some memorable tunes to carry the show while also demonstrating his ability to write smart and witty lyrics. The lovely ballad “Carolina Moon,” for instance, is introduced (and nicely sung) by Mike Masters as Merle, who longs for the good old days of music when songs had simple, straightforward rhymes. Wann then proceeds to utilize a textbook example of a simple straightforward rhyme in the song’s opening lines by rhyming the word ‘moon’ with the word ‘June.’ Such clever moments take the already catchy and memorable songs to a higher level of appreciation. But don’t worry — you don’t need to know the difference between interior and exterior rhymes to enjoy Wann’s songs. They’re as plainspoken and natural as a lazy afternoon in Hendersonville. “The good old days was hard,” Aunt Ethyl sings. “Give me the mall.”
Dennis C. Maulden’s absolutely marvelousœ stage design extends the feel of the garage setting out into the audience, making the evening feel much more intimate than you typically expect from a Flat Rock production. Plus, the characters direct almost all of their dialogue (plus some funny extra bits before the show) straight to the audience, making the whole enterprise that much more comfortable. Under the faultless direction of Flat Rock Playhouse Executive & Artistic Director Robin Farquhar, Jim’s Garage is a toe-tapping good time. As Jim says at the play’s beginning, “You’re in good hands here.” A line of dialogue may have never rung so true.
Jim’s Garage continues through July 20 at Flat Rock Playhouse. For reservations, call 828-693-0731.