If you’re going to set a musical in the American South of 1964, certain looming shadows are ignored at your peril: the Civil Rights Movement, the escalating Vietnam War and myriad other momentous societal changes just over the horizon. But TheatreWorks’ world premiere “Tinyard Hill” consigns all such issues to the status of faint backdrop or irrelevancy amid a tepidly star-crossed Nawthern girl/good ole boy romance. This bland “country musical,” in a twanged-up generic-contemporary-showtune mode by Tommy Newman and Mark Allen, may appeal to regional houses looking for new and unchallenging chamber-scaled tuners.
Pin-neat, permed socialite May Bell (Allison Briner) and grime-blackened Russell (James Moye) are quarrelsome neighbors in a south Georgia hamlet. Her husband took off last year, leaving her childless, ticked off and sexually antsy; his wife died long ago, leaving him to raise now-grown son David (Chris Critelli), who wants to turn their antiquated blacksmithery into a modern body-parts shop.
It’s a while before we learn May Bell and Russell’s mutual resentment stems from their being onetime sweethearts, by which point antipathy has turned to attraction between strapping David and May Bell’s visiting niece, Aileen (Melissa WolfKlain). Latter is down from NYC so auntie can sew her bridal gown, but also to escape the ever-more-elaborate wedding planning of her socially ambitious mother. (“She always was finer than the cloth she was cut from,” May Bell grumbles.) Aileen’s unseen groom, a staid older psychiatrist, appears to have won that role because he’s a safe, successful choice, as opposed to a love match.
Thus it’s awkward timing for the two young ‘uns to commence courting, a development frowned upon by both adults. When David’s draft notice arrives, Russell shares that bad news with Aileen rather than the boy. To keep her niece from “trouble” and David out of ‘Nam, May Bell promises to use her social connections to bribe away the young man’s military call, so long as Russell helps snuff the kids’ romance.
With 19 songs packed into about 100 minutes (plus intermission), this tale is told in broadest, cursory terms, with one-dimensional characters whose dialogue nonetheless often carelessly contradicts their narrowly drawn stances — arguing for and against military service within a few seconds, for instance.
The occasional funny lines, however, are spoken, while banal lyrics add little heft to midtempo tunes glued together more by gratuitous key changes than distinct personality. Their “country” flavor is mostly a matter of droppin’ “g’s” and adding fiddle/banjo-flavored orchestrations. The older couple’s sparring “That Woman,” plus pretty ballads “Carolina” and “Easy,” rep mild highlights.
Cast is capable vocally and otherwise, with Briner and Critelli its liveliest members. Still, contrivance cancels out any real chemistry between characters. And there’s little TheatreWorks a.d. Robert Kelley can do to spice up an evening in which majority time is spent with one or two performers standing around in kitchen or yard, singing yet another song that expresses simple sentiments already made obvious.
Design contribs are likewise competent but limited; Tom Langguth’s trundling set pieces are dominated by four cypress trees dripping Spanish moss. It’s a testament to the innocuous superficiality of “Tinyard Hill” that those cut-out flora evoke more atmosphere than anything else here. The show would scarcely lose any of its scant flavor or credibility if transplanted to another regional setting or dawning war era.