Those who still have the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack at the top of their iTunes playlists should get a kick out of WMKS: Where Music Kills Sorrow. Playing in repertory at N.C. State's TheatreFest 2011, it's a very slight but occasionally entertaining irony-free look at Southern old-time radio that boasts every rustic cliché from a singing cowboy to the Ku Klux Klan. Under the direction of Allison Bergman, this production occasionally generates audience goodwill with its spirited performances.
Frank Higgins' script takes place over a night's broadcast of a small-time rural radio station in 1935. Radio was live in those days, and this station—and production—boasts a house band (Christen Blanton, Doug Baker and Ryan Mack, providing plenty of energetic, toe-tapping music). But there's a whiff of menace tonight: The station owners and hosts (T. Phillip Caudle and Elizabeth Williams), wary that their support of striking miners will inspire violence from the mining companies, have posted guards outside.
The mining companies prove to be the least of their worries, though, in an evening that sees the return of their now-famous yodeling cowboy (Mark Dillon), a love triangle and a couple of special guests who bring another threat of violence with them. Also, there's an audience participation sing-along with oatmeal cookies.
What you get, essentially, is a series of standards such as "Tom Dooley," "John Henry" and the like, usually the result of a decision made by a character that comments on a recent plot development (in a way, it almost feels like a bluegrass version of Glee). There is something charming in the show's old-fashioned "let's hang out and sing songs!" mentality, but there isn't anything terribly deep in the story or characters.
The singing, though, is excellent all around; Dillon does a mean yodel, Caudle breaks out a strong harmonica and Elizabeth Williams' strong voice carries several numbers. (Brett Williams, as station girl Cindy, also does several fine musical numbers and manages to distinguish herself even in sections that simply require her to silently react to what the others are singing.) In addition, credit is due to John C. McIlwee's set design, which convincingly re-creates the feel of the old lumber warehouse where the show is broadcast.
WMKS: Where Music Kills Sorrow isn't terribly ambitious, but for fans of the type of music the characters perform, it's a pleasant enough night out. Make sure to get there early—the band plays a few numbers before the curtain. If you're nice, you might get in a request, or possibly an oatmeal cookie.