If you’re looking for a show with music, dancing, and rim jobs this season, then Sidemart Theatrical Grocery’s Haunted Hillbilly is for you. The play, written by Graham Cuthbertson and adapted from Derek McCormack’s novel of the same name, is a dazzling burst of southern gothic stitched together with stellar performances and a fantastic original score.
The story follows Hyram Woodside (Patrick Costello), the perpetual lonely boy country balladeer looking to make it big. Early on in the show, Hyram and his wife, Audrey (Gemma James-Smith), try to exorcise a bat from their home. In the background, an immense shadow takes shape, like a gargantuan spider getting ready for the kill. Enter Nudie, the wheelchair-bound couturier who wants to turn Hyram into a star. Nudie, played by theatre veteran Greg Kramer, offers to dress Hyram in the finest of custom-made outfits that sparkle with an otherworldly glow. However, there’s a price to pay for meteoric ascensions towards fame, and Nudie’s diet of blood and deception has no limit. Kramer lays on the macabre wit with Svengali charm, as he slowly pulls apart the musician’s personal life, playing a vampiric Iago to Hyram’s alcoholic Othello. No one stands in the way of Nudie’s hunger, especially Hyram’s second love interest, Bobbi (Alexis Taylor), whose demise is particularly lurid.
As Nudie is wheeled around by his silent and lurching assistant, Dr Wertham (Kyle Gatehouse), the narrative is punctuated by visits from Pastor Ray (Trent Pardy), a snake-oil salesman with an off-putting wink. This charlatan is your host for the evening, a vaudeville narrator telling a story from another time and place, all the while trying to sell you his sure-fire tonic.
But wait, there’s more! Under the needle, there’s some good ol’ fashioned country music, penned by Juno-nominated composer/musical director, Matthew Barber. The songs are pure genius — equal parts hilarity and horror. From a boot-thumping, up-tempo rant about getting the clap, to a catchy recitation of how to turn human bone into sequins, and a sinister lament about love and loss in wax museums. While the cast sings their hearts out, Barber backs them with musicians Joe Grass (Ideal Lovers, Lhasa de Sela) and Julian Brown (Feist, Apostle of Hustle). The trio also provides atmosphere, a pedal steel and xylophone creating a dissonant, ethereal twang.
In terms of performances, my personal favourite is Daniel Brochu’s portrayal of Erskine Mole, the hard-drinking, philandering, born-again, ten-gallon reigning King of Country. Brochu plays the part with anything but gentle grace. He’s a hot, sweaty mess, with a vest a couple of sizes too small and a comb-over so heinous it’s criminal. Mole’s claim to fame is his hit “The Love From Above,” but Hyram is quick to usurp said throne. Brochu embodies the worn spirit of a man slowly falling out of frame. He can no longer keep up with the chorale’s dance steps, he seems out of place, his God-fearing tunes are incongruous with his womanizing, and yet he refuses to relinquish his former glory days. The pious hostess Lil’ Molly (Jackie Torrens) tries to keep Brochu in check, but his sacrilegious litany of sexual innuendos makes this character a whiskey-filled force to be reckoned with. There is something almost George Bush Jr happening here, with Brochu trading his bottle for a crucifix, his bleary puppy eyes beckoning forgiveness.
Director Andrew Shaver has an arsenal here. Killer performances, paired with an infectious score, draped in costumes that erupt with glamour, this play has the potential for a cult-hit trajectory similar to that of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. So, this holiday season, put your yuletide cheer on pause and head on down to Haunted Hillbilly. It’s a scream.
Haunted Hillbilly plays at The Segal Centre Studio.
Dec 6-10, 12-17 & 19 at 8pm and Dec 13 at 2pm (pay what you can) and a performance at 2pm on the 20th.