A pleasant confection from the creator of “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” “The People vs. Mona” is as insubstantial as it is charming. There’s barely a memorable joke, melody, character or plot twist, yet the show remains amusingly affable throughout, never promising more than it can deliver and never delivering more than a feather-light diversion. Theaters coast to coast will likely soon be producing it.
Composer and lyricist Jim Wann calls his style “musician’s theater,” and the term is apt. The People vs. Mona band from the small Southern town of Tippo re-creates for potential tourists — that’s us, apparently — the hamlet’s “trial of the century.” Mona Mae Katt, the town’s voluptuous baton-twirler and perennial bad girl, stands trial for murdering her husband of 10 hours, C.C. Katt. A series of singing witnesses all point the finger at Mona, whose steel guitar served as the murder weapon and whose wedding dress was found splashed with C.C.’s last beverage, a Yoo Hoo.
Mona Mae readily admits that she’s happy her hubby’s dead, and prosecutor Mavis Frye is prepping her mayoral run based on her certainty that she’ll be sending Mona to the electric chair. Mona is repped by Tippo’s nicest guy, Jim Summerford, who also happens to be engaged to Mavis and who has never, ever won a case against his longtime fiancee. Wann, along with book writers Ernest Chambers and Patricia Miller, smartly places Jim as our narrator; he’s the one person the audience can always root for, especially when he confesses his secret love for his client.
Cherub-faced Scott Waara, perfectly cast as Jim, anchors the multitalented cast, who all play instruments, sing and represent Tippo’s predictably eccentric inhabitants, most of whom have a motive for wanting C.C. Katt dead.
Charismatic percussionist Michelle Mais portrays both the town’s culture columnist (it’s a short column, we’re told) and the local minister. Bassist and impressive bass vocalist Ritt Henn plays an officer who saw Mona’s pink Cadillac near the scene of the crime, and keyboardist William Thomas Jr. plays the Judge and blind Willy Carter, who is called to testify about the perfume scents on the street that night.
Joe Joyce plays just about everybody else — from the ancient namesake of the local law school, Euple R. Pugh, to the town’s Indian hotelier — and has a lot of fun doing it.
Ranging in style from gospel to folk, country and blues, the songs differ in tune more than in tone; they’re all pretty much campy reflections of the iconic Americana of the town of Tippo. Wann gibes gently, but the material is way too good-hearted to flirt with satire. And while some of the songs are fun — especially a nice three-way among Jim, Mavis and Mona — they don’t create the kind of enveloping sentimental sweetness that the more consistent “Pump Boys” managed. And while all the performers have strong voices, nobody steps up to steal the show, which could use some stealing.
“The People vs. Mona” is a small-scale musical, and director Paul Lazarus does an excellent job of making the audience feel a part of the scene even in the large Pasadena Playhouse, beginning with the ushers handing out fans to the patrons as they walk in. But while the characters talk constantly about how hot Tippo is, there’s not a single handkerchief dabbing a single forehead as the action heats up.
By frequently changing the color of the background scrim, Lawrence Miller keeps his set from becoming too monotonous. The show will probably benefit from being produced in smaller houses, where the atmosphere can be more easily manipulated.