By James V. Ruocco
In "Always Nina: A Tennessee Story and Songbook," the always charismatic Nina Cathey Allbert explains it all to you: life, love, passion, music, acting, marriage, divorce, family, childhood, spirituality, infidelity, idealism, determination, disillusionment, theater, raising a daughter, getting even, teaching, moving from state to state, finding happiness.
There is a beginning.
There is a middle.
There is an end.
There are songs.
There are remembrances.
There is drama.
There is laughter.
There are tears.
And throughout this sparkling one-woman show, Allbert takes us on a mind-changing journey through the various stages of her life that ends with the actress/singer not only happily transformed and contented, but one that leaves every cheering member of the audience with a long, lasting and elated impression of what a wonderful, remarkable and talented woman Allbert is.
Officially titled "Always Nina: A Tennessee Story and Songbook," the production is classy, charming, personable and intimate. Sort of a "Shirley Valentine" story, a la Southern style, it is a thrilling musical theatre production, rife with enthralling storytelling and a pungent musical songbook that becomes the ideal vehicle for this detailed exploration of Allbert's very interesting and unpredictable life front, center, backwards, forward, left, right and upside down.
The power of "Always Nina" also lies in its ability to make the past seem timely and vividly present. With Albert as both guide and instructor, there is a poignant, accelerating momentum to the piece that gives it the sweep and attention it deserves.
Written by Allbert and Joan Burr, the play is peppered with delicious tidbits about Tennessee life, grilled corn, apricot nectar cake, canning, relatives, special talisman roses with baby's breath, cheating husbands, Bible school, finding theater, beating the odds, being a teen aged mom, raising a daughter, discovering musical theater, teaching school, $11,000 barbecues, haunted residences, riding motorcycles, cooking breakfast for bikers and marrying and divorcing fellow actor and director Leo Sochocki. It's all refreshingly told with just the right amount of boldness, candor, balance, honesty and wit.
"Always Nina" has been directed by Meredith Brittain who staged the production when it first opened in White Bluff, Tennessee. Since then, it has been slightly tweaked and formatted with some very minor changes implemented by both Allbert and Burr for its city to city presentation across the United States.
With Brittain pulling the strings, so to speak, the play itself swims beautifully from scene to scene and song to song with a natural flair and compassion, illuminated by a raw honesty that heightens its flavorful and radiant aura. From one exciting moment to the next, everything is impeccably timed and portrayed with a one-on-one intimacy that not only gives "Always Nina" its pungent allure, but allows the entire piece to breathe, fly, entice and dream.
Yes, there are people seated around you. Yes, this is a two-act play. Yes, this is a one woman show. But as "Always Nina" spins, cajoles, rivets and twirls, there are times when you forget all of that and simply sit back and imagine that Albert is talking only to you and you alone. Then again, that's the point of this truthful, very special character piece, isn't it? Brittain's fresh, fulfilling take on this autobiographical memory play furthers that notion with deep-rooted sensibility and simple, intelligent staging techniques. It's all there in living, breathing Technicolor.
The musical score for "Always Nina" contains 11 songs, nine of which were written by the tremendously talented Joan Burr. They are "White Bluff, Tennessee," "George Cathey's Overalls," "We Beat the Odds," "Who Doesn't Love a Good Musical," "Stories I Can't Tell," "Biker Days," "Love Resurrected," "The Lord in in Our Midst" and "Tennessee Hometown Girl (Reprise)." The tenth musical number is the uplifting "Amazing Grace," a Christian hymn published in 1779, with words penned by English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton. The eleventh song titled "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" was composed in 1868 by Charles Crozat Converse.
The songs themselves share a stylistic, down-home diversity, spirit and adventurous energy, which complements the actual story and gives it plenty of snap, character and dimension. They are pleasant, colorful, tuneful, exciting and page turning. What's especially pleasing is that each and every one of them fits seamlessly and naturally into the piece without ever interrupting Allbert's storytelling, her remembrances, her jokes, her flip, candid remarks and her reenactments of the many friends, family and loved ones who make up her her very colorful, interesting and beautiful life.
As the piano, Burr is fully immersed in the magic of the moment. Her musical accompaniment
is sharp, precise, poised and good-natured. It is matched by tremendous insight, individuality, freedom and feeling which gives "Always Nina" its timeliness and pulse. Her musicians (David Baggett, Alan Allbert, Virginia Edman, Paul DeMaio and Nancy Janutolo), perfect in every way, follow her faithfully, always going with the flow, adding insight after insight to her original "Always Nina" score. And yes, things are brooded, simmered, jumped and zinged with passionate orchestral delivery.
As headliner and solo star of "Always Nina," Nina Cathey Allbert is no stranger to stage performance or musical theatre. She has starred in dozens of plays and musicals including "Hello, Dolly!" "Into the Woods," "Passion," "The Secret Garden," "My Fair Lady," "Driving Miss Daisy," "South Pacific," "Steel Magnolias" and "Kiss Me Kate," among others. While performing in Connecticut at the Thomaston Opera House, I named her "Best Actress in a Musical," "Best Supporting Actress in a Musical," "Best Actress in a Play" and "Entertainer of the Year" for her brilliant work in four distinct and different productions. For this musical, she has been named (par moi) both "Entertainer of the Year" and "Best Actress in a Musical."
Here, she is in her element. Then, as now, she comes to the performance stage ready, prepared, excited and focused. Up close and personal, she brings a fresh, effervescent polish and luster to Burr's catchy musical songbook, making every vocal trick, gesture, move, lyric, rhythm and beat unfold with simplistic, truthful elegance, spunk and spirit. Her dreamy tones and perfect vocal phrasing not only bring a heightened sensitivity and pulse to the meaning of each lyric, but are met with that familiar smile in her voice that has become her trademark.
No matter what she is asked to sing - "Tennessee Hometown Girl," "Stories I Can't Tell," "George Cathey's Overalls," "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," "Amazing Grace" - to name a few, she creates a musical moment and runs with it. And though things are rehearsed and song is her means of getting there, the charm of her delivery and the intelligence of her musicality makes you believe and believe and believe.
When the music stops, Allbert assumes the role of storyteller, effortlessly engaging the audience in tales of her past and present life. It's all very personal, intimate, explicit and colorful with Albert playing herself, her parents, her neighbors, her friends, her husbands and her loved ones. Just as Pauline Collins did in the West End and Broadway production of "Shirley Valentine," Allbert switches gears like a theatrical chameleon, playing every one of her roles with decided communicative aplomb, personality, charm, swagger and dash. That said, her comic timing is impeccable, as is her delivery of a punchline, a dig, a kick in the ass, and all those unpleasant memories of being married to a man who she will "dare not speak his name." Ouch!
And the show, as a result, has a formidable strength and humanity that is ovation-worthy on every level imaginable.
"Always Nina: A Tennessee Story and Songbook" was showcased Nov. 17 and 18 at The Congregational Church (949 Main St., South Glastonbury, CT).