Theater : Playhouse offers "Runaway" hit
Martha's Vineyard Times File Photo
It is the music of a gritty, unconventional, poignant, funny, and successful life story sung with a foot-stomping Arkansas twang that will bring audiences to their feet. "Runaway Beauty Queen or The Lost Pleiad," playing now through July 17 at The Vineyard Playhouse, is the award-winning autobiographical story of Rhonda Coullet, actress, playwright, composer, and lyricist.
Told in song, the tale unfolds in straightforward style from the harsh Arkansas childhood of tomboy Sis, stealing make-up, vowing to become a singer, seeking freedom and independence, getting a music scholarship at the University of Arkansas, becoming Miss Arkansas, and learning that "a lady wears pearls, and a skirt that twirls."
"It's a goddess rock opera," Ms. Coullet explained in a conversation with The Times. "The spiritual search for self that causes one to face the fierce reality and lessons in life... We can live our lives without paying attention. But I think pain is a good teacher." And with the faintest Arkansas lilt, she added, "Everybody has losses in their lives... It's not just my life story. It's something deeper."
The Pleiads, according to Greek mythology, are the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione, heavenly bodies who — at the Playhouse — sit onstage in contemporary dress and guise, and take turns participating, guiding, and championing Sis (who represents Ms. Coullet) through the aspirations and complexities of her liberated life.
"I was fantasizing about women having goddesses in our lives giving us power," Ms. Coullet said, quoting from Revelation 1:20, about "the mysteries of the seven stars."
The energy-driven and polished production is smart, funny, and affecting. Details are attended to; the panels that surround the upstage side of a round platform where the action takes place become dimensional and atmospheric with lighting effects, and the characters, costumed in black, use long colorful scarves to define their different roles.
Directed by Randal Myler, with musical direction by Paul Jacobs, it stars Ms. Coullet along with an impressively talented ensemble — Whitney Bashor, Janet Dickinson, Mary Murfitt, Elizabeth Palmer, KT Curran, Judith Jacklin, and Ben Hope — who collectively have a list of credits as long as an Interstate, including on- and off-Broadway, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, regional theaters across the country, films, and television.
They collaborate in an almost two-hour-long celebration of wins and losses and life lessons set to song and embellished with wit, humor, and an overriding message: Be true to yourself.
Rhonda Oglesby Coullet, raised in Stamps, Ark., was the only Miss Arkansas (to date) to ever resign her title. After three months of appearing at Rotary Clubs, parades, and here-and-there ribbon-cutting ceremonies as Miss Arkansas 1965, the disillusioned 19-year-old turned in her crown and moved to California to become a singing star. Free-spirited and liberated, she starred in the Los Angeles production of "Hair," became pregnant, then gave up her child for adoption, had a 10-year marriage to musician Armand Coullet, and earned her credentials as an established stage, film, and television entertainer.
In "Runaway Beauty Queen" all these events and more are covered — no, heralded — in songs such as: "Parkin' in a Pickup," "Do It for the Dorm," "I'm Tired of Making Love in the Bed," and the poignant "Farmer's Daughter." As with any opera, classic or contemporary, the lyrics have the burden of expressing soul as well as action. "It Never Comes Out," a song about doing laundry, takes on a message about accepting oneself. And watch out for "I've Got Callous," a ribald song for no-nonsense feminists.
All the cast members have voices worthy of solo performances, and each is a stand out. In the role of Sis, the talented Whitney Bashor, a newer member of the ensemble, is nothing short of captivating. Ms. Coullet plays Mamaw, her real grandmother and the biggest influence in her life, with convincing grace.
"My grandma gave me a spiritual gift of believing in myself," she said. "Mamaw, with her sixth grade education, was able to find joy and happiness and wisdom because she was in harmony with herself and nature."
The show, which premiered in 2005 in Sarasota, Fla., is due in part to Ms. Coullet's friendship with its co-producer, Islander Judith Belushi Pisano. The two discovered each other when Ms. Coullet appeared off-Broadway and on Saturday Night Live with the late John Belushi and Chevy Chase and Bill Murray; and in the cult film "Mr. Mike's Mondo Video" with Dan Aykroyd.
Ms. Coullet sees it as a joyous celebration, the denouement of her life experiences in Arkansas. "I can remember getting down on my knees," she said, "and saying, 'Someday I won't be here — and I'll report on all this.'"
And she's accomplished it in singular style, memorably and well.
"Runaway Beauty Queen: The Lost Pleiad" 8 pm (Thurs.–Sat.), 7 pm (Tues., Wed.) Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. Through July 17. 508-696-6300; vineyardplayhouse.org.