Southern-Fried Justice

Advocates of musicals as a serious art form may well gnash their teeth over The People vs. Mona, which bills itself as "a musical mystery screwball comedy." Though that label suggests a daring, genre-busting piece, the show is no more than well-crafted, enticingly performed fluff with a score by the creator of Pump Boys and Dinettes, Jim Wann, and a book by him and Patricia Miller. As the stage directions indicate, "High energy, fast-paced. Laughter and applause are certainly high among the goals." If you want vengeful barbers, French barricades, and weighty issues, look elsewhere. "Why did Mona Mae Katt kill her husband C.C. only 10 hours after they were married?" is the question pressing on the residents of Tippo, Ga., and particularly on the court convened in the Frog Pad, the local juke joint, superbly designed by Travis McHale. Vinyl records and album covers dot the walls of the stage and auditorium; there's a jukebox in one corner; and various indicators of the sultry climate—a fly swatter, a "Honk If You Love Jesus" sticker—are interspersed among them.

Mona's lawyer is Jim Summerford, a blandly pleasant attorney (though energetically played by Richard Binder) who resembles a cross between Jon Lovett and Ken Berry, the blandly pleasant actor who starred in Mayberry R.F.D. The prosecutor is Summerford's starchy, suited fiancée, Mavis Frye (Karen Culp), who has either beaten him or plea-bargained all their legal encounters.

As the trial progresses, the plot encompasses the future of the Frog Pad, the oldest juke joint in Georgia. Developers in town want to tear it down and clear the waterway for riverboat gambling, and Mavis may be in league with them. But would she go so far as to put Mona behind bars to help developers get hold of the property? And is something blossoming between the defendant and her attorney?

The witnesses include musical-theater aficionado Officer Bell, who's given the square-jawed dimness of Dudley Do-Right by strapping actor David Jon Wilson; Blind Willy (Marcie Henderson), a street person whose nose for the scents wafting by the crime scene rivals the finest sommelier's; and Euple R. Pugh, a 96-year-old lecher and the town's leading citizen. (The bizarre name is a drawback, however: a hymn to him sounds as if the singers are garbling the lyrics.) Pugh is played by Omri Schein, a bantam actor who appears to have Bilbo Baggins's DNA and takes on multiple roles—he's also a touchy dentist and a smooth-tempered Indian immigrant—with comic relish.

Mariand Torres as Mona (née Ramona) is a sensational singer and brings a lot of likability to the part of the Latina defendant. (Nonetheless, occasional dialogue in Spanish is still distracting, even though it's a crucial point of Wann's story that he's talking about the New South—multicultural and forward-looking.) But she and Binder don't have much romantic chemistry.

Wann's music encompasses folk, twanging country, blues, and even a school song. The score is almost a musical résumé. The songs are tuneful and the lyrics pretty smart, and they're played with outstanding musicianship by the McGnats, the joint's resident band (Ritt Henn, Jason Chimonides, and Dan Bailey). Each of the performers gets a chance—some more than one—to shine in the numbers, which include "Lockdown Blues" (with a yodel) and "You Done Forgot Your Bible," a gospel number that shakes the rafters, thanks to Natalie Douglas.

Director Kate Middleton moves everything along briskly, and choreographer Jill Gorrie makes the most of the limited space, particularly in "A Real Defense," a late number in which the suspects echo their earlier words in flashback to sort out the guilty parties. Fluff this may be, but it's of such a high caliber that it easily meets the goal of sending the audience out with a sunny disposition.

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