The latest show to take the stage at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse is a new musical creation called Here You Come Again: How Dolly Saved My Life In 12 Easy Songs. The play is written by Bruch Vilanch, Tricia Paoluccio, and Gabriel Barre, the latter two of whom also star in this two-character endeavor.
As you might have guessed from the title, the show’s score consists entirely of songs written or famously performed by legendary country singer Dolly Parton. However, unlike in some other recent offerings that fall into a similar jukebox-musical category, Dolly herself isn’t the show’s primary subject. Instead, Here You Come Again tells an original story about a character named Kevin, a forty-something wannabe comedian who settled for a job in the “vicinity” as a waiter at a comedy club.
However, even this paltry gig has been taken from him by the pandemic, which the play takes place during the early days of. The ensuing disruption of normality was also the catalyst for a “break” between he and his long-term boyfriend Jordan, which sent Kevin out of their shared apartment to hole up in his parent’s attic.
It’s in this sorry state (and with some requisite rations of toilet paper) that we find him at the start of the musical, which is where Dolly Parton comes in. As it turns out, Kevin has spent his life idolizing the singer, which, combined with his current state of despair, manages to inspire her to materialize from one of his posters to give him an extended pep talk.
Though this is an alright concept in theory, the play stumbles more than a little in its execution, often feeling forced and clumsy as it moves through the story’s beats. In what I’d call its most noticeable flaw, I also found Kevin pretty hard to root for as a main character: while his struggles are certainly relatable ones, the script paints him as a little too much of a loser and his situation too much the result of his own passivity for me to find him terribly sympathetic.
This narrative problem may have been made worse by Gabriel Barre’s performance in the role: while he’s an effective enough actor, he seemed to lack the sort of dynamic star power that could’ve redeemed such a sad-sack character, and his singing voice left even more to be desired.
However, the same could certainly not be said about his co-star, Tricia Paoluccio, who thankfully takes the lead in most of the show’s musical numbers and whose impeccable portrayal of Dolly Parton is clearly the show’s raison d’etre. The actress not only does an excellent job of imitating Parton’s accent and mannerisms, but has strong enough vocal chops to make her renditions of the singer’s classics almost as awe-inspiring as the real thing.
Along with the number that gives the show its title, you’ll get to hear Paoluccio perform plenty of other country favorites, such as “9 To 5,” and “Jolene.” However, per jukebox-musical usual, many of these songs feel as if they were inserted into the show’s plot under rather flimsy pretenses. Nevertheless, most of them still manage to be reasonably entertaining, with a stunning rendition of “I Will Always Love You” near the end of the show probably emerging as its highlight.
Here You Come Again also finds some interesting ways to stage and present these musical numbers, including one in which Barre prances the stage in a wig and skirt while lip-synching to Paoluccio’s vocals, reviving an old nightclub act of his. And this isn’t the only memorable wardrobe adjustment that adds to the play’s flair; over the course of its two acts, Parton dons not one or two but four different fabulous dresses courtesy of costume designer Bobby Pearce.
There were also moments in the show where the bond that develops between the two characters and Kevin’s efforts to transcend his downward spiral become genuinely moving. In one, Dolly, who spends most of the show as a beacon of positivity, confesses that even she once struggled to find the will to carry on after a life-altering disappointment. In another, Kevin resonantly describes what it’s like to experience profound depression: as if he couldn’t even see the sky’s blue because of all the black clouds.
You’ll probably also get a few laughs out of the show’s light-hearted script; though not every joke landed, quite a few of its gentle jabs did indeed hit their marks. Overall, though, I found myself less than engaged by the play’s clear aim of recapitulating a familiar have-faith-in-yourself message rather than conveying anything more sophisticated. Thus, also per jukebox-musical-usual, I couldn’t help but emerge from the show wishing that theaters and audiences were more interested in truly original musicals than in less inspired repurposing of iconic hits.
However, Paoluccio’s incredible performance and the inherent likability of Parton and her catalog redeem Here You Come Again at least enough to make the show worthwhile for those who share Kevin’s fondness for its central figure. The musical also delivers well enough on its promise of uncomplicated inspiration that many will probably find something heartwarming in this sentimental tale, especially given the approaching holiday and increased resonance of the idea of fresh starts.
In any case, you’ve only got two more days to catch Here You Come Again at the Kravis, though you can also keep up with future performances of this touring production on their Instagram if you find yourself so inclined. And, since I seem to have reached the end of my final review of 2022, I guess I’ll close out by wishing you all a happy new year!