This March, in a two-night-only exclusive, TUTS Underground staged the first ever readings of Sweet Potato Queens, a new musical from a book by Tony-winning Rupert Holmes, with music by Grammy-winning Melissa Manchester and lyrics by Oscar-nominee Sharon Vaughn.
The not-always-factual story is based on the life of “Boss Queen” Jill Conner Browne, the original Sweet Potato Queen and best-selling author of such books as American Thighs: The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Preserving Your Assets and Fat Is the New 30: The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Coping with (the Crappy Parts of) Life. But before she began spreading her gospel of empowerment through sisterhood and positive thinking around the world, our self-crowned queen was merely a subject living on the south side of Jackson, Mississippi.
In Sweet Potato Queens the year is 1982, and life in a double-wide has Jill at her wit’s end. Money is tight, opportunities are few, and her husband has an eye that wanders everywhere except the want ads. And her friends – Flower Tammy, Floozie Tammy, and Too Much Tammy – aren’t faring any better. As the ladies begin to realize their own self-worth, they start down a road that will eventually lead them to become Sweet Potato Queens and don green gowns and giant tiaras (rivaled in size only by their hair) for the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Because if you’re always waiting for someone else to acknowledge your majesty, you might be waiting forever.
If four archetypal women navigating life and love together with good and sometimes bawdy humor sounds familiar, it should. But Sweet Potato Queens can only aspire to be Designing Women (or, if you prefer, The Golden Girls, Living Single, Sex and the City, or even The Facts of Life). The relationship between these women is sadly underdeveloped, so what should be the strongest element of the story is instead often an afterthought, a convenient way to move the plot forward without providing emotional depth to any of the characters.
Part of the problem is the structure of the piece. It jumps from past to present, back and forth, bringing into sharp focus the weak bonds these ladies form in the past and the troubling end result in the present – an incredibly unequal relationship. In the present, there is no question that Jill is the queen and the others are “wannabes” (her words, not mine).
There is also a lack of individual character development. We don’t always know what the characters want, so we don’t always know when they get it – except when they tell us they have. It’s never clear what Too Much Tammy wants. Floozie Tammy gets what she wants, but we never find out how. And though Flower Tammy’s arc is followed all the way through, it’s unbelievable. George, the only male wannabe (or, if you will, the Anthony to the ladies of Sugarbaker’s Design Firm), was completely disconnected from the group, to the point where it’s hard to justify his inclusion.
In fact, the character of George only exemplifies one major, glaring problem with the book by Holmes. Despite being the raison d’être of Browne’s work, and ostensibly the heart of the musical, it’s difficult to see how the sisterhood of the Sweet Potato Queens had any empowering effect on its members. Worse still, what little female-centric positivity remains is undermined early in the production by the unnecessary and unwelcome inclusion of an exaggerated, caricatured East Asian accent, played for laughs by the proprietor of the local Chinese restaurant.
Fortunately, Manchester and Vaughn crafted strong, memorable songs that keep the show moving and (mostly) enjoyable. “Majorette Boots” and “Funeral Food” are high energy, fun standouts, and “Cherries in the Snow” and “George’s Song (It’s Me Reprise)” are heart-wrenching. Notably, the best numbers are not limited to the major players. Jill’s parents have two of most earworm-iest songs in the entire show (“Do What Makes Your Heart Happy” and “Sears”/”Sears Reprise”).
Co-directors Bruce Lumpkin and Marley Wisnoski led the cast, headed by Kristin Warren as Jill, with less than 24 hours to prepare their parts, and did a spectacular job with what is ultimately a fun but flawed story.