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THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST
by Beth Henley

Theatre Arlington

Director: Connie Lane
Stage Manager: Meagan Brooks
Set Designer: Jack Hardaway
Lighting Designer: Max Marquez
Sound Designer: Ryan Brazil
Costume Designer: Ric Leal
Scenic Artist/Properties Designer: Jennye James
Wigs/Hair/Make-up Design: Burt Grant Salon

CAST

Carnelle Scott: Robin Daniel
Elain Rutledge: Melanie Mason
Tessy Mahoney: Cindy Matthews
Delmount Williams: Steven Morris
Mac Sam: Michael Rains
Popeye Jackson: Kristi Ramos Toler






Reviewed Performance 8/5/2011

Reviewed by Bonnie K. Daman, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Brookhaven, Mississippi: Home of the Miss Firecracker Contest.

Local gal Carnelle Scott is out to change her reputation and her image by entering the town's most celebrated beauty pageant and bringing home the prize. With her hair dyed red, an old clunky pair of tap shoes and an extremely farsighted seamstress, what could go wrong?

Playwright Beth Henley continues off the success of her most famous play Crimes of the Heart in the late 1970s by writing a gem of a comedy, The Miss Firecracker Contest. Set in the South, Henley's heroine Carnelle Scott won't stop at anything to win the local beauty pageant in order to leave her past behind. Known as the "Hot Tamale" for her former promiscuous ways, simple-minded Carnelle obtains the help of Popeye Jackson, a socially-awkward seamstress, to make her garments for the contest.

Unannounced, Carnelle's cousin Elain Rutledge comes in town and regrettably agrees to support Carnelle's ambition. That same afternoon, freshly released from a mental institution, Elain's brother Delmount also arrives home amid the chaos, joins the cause for his cousin and ends up with a lot more than he bargains for along the way.

Theatre Arlington's production of The Miss Firecracker Contest was a pleasant way to start my weekend as I attended opening night this past Friday. The excitement and anticipation of the show's kickoff to a three-week run was apparent in the audience and on stage during Executive Producer Todd Hart's introduction. Act I however started off sluggish as the cast took the first few scenes to work their way into a good rhythm ? some timing with dialogue and maneuvering props were just a couple of kinks that needed to be worked out.

The entirety of Act I took place in the family's living area and the production team did a thorough job creating the Southern homestead with trinkets and eclectic odds and ends including a Piggly Wiggly grocery sack. Director Connie Lane made effective use of the space with several entrances and exits for the actors to utilize, and props strategically placed on set so the action didn't remain centralized but allowed for variety.

Act II focused on the actual Miss Firecracker contest with a complete change-up of the set. Jennye James' embellished red and white big tent backdrop was a perfect display of pageantry that tied in with Carnelle's dressing room and tent site.

Costuming was as dysfunctional or commonplace as the characters themselves; from Carnelle's flashy red, blue and silver pageant costume to Popeye's odd taste in fashion or Delmount's grungy Dairy Queen t-shirt, the tackier the costume the more peculiar the character.

The cast blended well, feeding off each other's energy once the pace of the show ramped up. Lane also knew when to focus on physical comedy with certain scenes utilizing her cast's chemistry with each other. For example, a scene in Act I called for the three ladies to simultaneously have an emotional breakdown but with Lane's added direction the physicality within the moment made it that much more absurd yet comical.

Robin Daniel, as the effervescent Carnelle Scott, carried the bulk of the show with a consistent amount of energy and "pizzazz". Her enthusiasm offset Carnelle from the other characters and helped create a nice balance among the many odd personalities on stage. Daniel's depiction of Carnelle's childlike ignorance and blas? attitude toward beauty and talent, and an overall belief in good-natured people was convincing and I felt her portrayal of a ditsy small-town girl was honest but not over the top.

Carnelle's pageant partner in crime was the lovable and quirky seamstress Popeye Jackson played by Kristi Ramos Toler. It took about halfway into the first scene for me to warm up to the character but when I did she easily became one of the most entertaining to watch. Toler was able to be awkward, coy and excitable all at the same time and she literally got the last laugh of the play.

The smart-mouthed, unkempt Delmount Williams was aptly played by Steven Morris. Instead of a one-level character, Delmount turned out to be the most complicated, and Morris touched on each emotion with ease. Morris also delivered some of the best one-liners and I thought his performance was solid.

In the role of Elain Rutledge, Melanie A. Mason brought a seasoned and stable element to the show. Mason was perfectly cast as Rutledge, a former beauty queen bored with her marriage but too timid to follow through on making changes. She represented a true Southern Belle: prim, poised and feisty.

Rounding out the cast, Michael Rains and Cindy Matthews as Mac Sam and Tessy Mahoney, respectively, made appearances only in the second act. Rains was fitting as the carnival roadie/sleazy salesman-type personality although I thought the character itself didn't hold much weight to the storyline other than a blast from the past. Matthews on the other hand caused quite a stir as Mahoney, an obsessed former lover of Delmount. She was less fortunate in looks than she was in her stubbornness at trying to rekindle their relationship. Matthews was brave and bold in her choices, to say the least ? big black mole and all ? and it paid off.

As humorous as the script was, Henley did write in a handful of poignant moments that interpreted beautifully on stage. Most notably was the brother/sister relationship between Delmount and Elain. The chemistry between the two actors during these scenes was touching, and from briefly reading in the playbill about their offstage friendship their relationship only enhanced the tenderness of these moments. However, so as not to take Henley's characters too seriously, the scenes were few and far between but were a genuine look at life in Brookhaven.

Theatre Arlington's run of The Miss Firecracker Contest goes through August 21st. Don't miss the fireworks!




The Miss Firecracker Contest
Theatre Arlington, 305 W. Main Street, Arlington, TX 76010
Through August 21st, 2011

Plays Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm.

Tickets are $19 with discounts for seniors, students & groups. You can purchase tixs by going to www.theatrearlington.org or calling their Box Office at 817-275-7661.