Our friend, Tyler, was appearing as Link Larkin in “Hairspray” at Jenny Wiley State Park Theater deep and east into Kentucky. As a theatre critic, I’ve seen a lot of musicals, and I’ve seen several versions of Hairspray. It’s a great musical, but in the wrong hands, it can be dreadful. Add to that risk that this theatre company performs its shows outside in the woods without cover from the elements. It might be beastly hot; it might be raining…all part of the adventure!
We headed deep into the wilds of Kentucky. We passed the giant Ark amusement park and Red River Gorge. As we neared, we slowly made our way up the hill towards Jenny Wiley State Park Lodge.
We couldn’t find it at first, but it wasn’t long before we parked the car out front and made our way inside. We had a bit of an anxious moment as the front desk clerk mentioned that they were sold out, and we thought there might only be one room for both of us to share. That simply would not work. But they realized we had two reservations and both of our rooms were ready.
As motel rooms go, they were fine. Recently renovated, there was laminate flooring, a refrigerator, and plenty of power outlets for all of my devices. The King-sized bed was comfortable and the room, while old, appeared clean. My back balcony overlooked the pool area, which would have been fantastic if I was seven years old and had time to kill.
I went back up to the lobby to explore the gift shop; it was mainly a walk-in closet where they sold candy, soda, and a couple of candles and forest-themed Knick-knacks. The woman at the front desk who had checked us in was also the defacto cashier. We chatted while she rang me up; I told her we were there to see our friend in “Hairspray.” She said she had never seen it but that someone else had asked her if she was playing the lead. She seemed flattered.
I didn’t tell her that they were basically calling her fat.
Tyler came and we piled back in the rental car and went off in search of dinner. The car had a remote start, which I enjoyed playing with more than I should have. As we drove through town, Tyler told us about the rehearsal process, dished on the Theatre company and his colleagues, and told us about their adventures into town so far.
He told us that the African American cast members had gone into town for ice cream a few days before and were approached by a local and asked why they were there.
It wasn’t a friendly tone.
The director of the show had talked with the cast about how vital a show about diversity and acceptance is in a place like this; this incident only confirmed the need as well as the need for the out-of-towners to be cautious.
We ended up at a very cool little restaurant called “The Brick House,” which, not surprisingly, was located in an old brick house. The food was outrageously good. I had a burger topped with a honey bourbon BBQ bleu cheese sauce. The fries were hot, fresh, and tasty. And the cheesecake — out of this world.
What was a place this excellent doing in this part of nowhere?
We headed back to the Lodge and dropped Tyler off outside the theatre in time for his call. I took a nap while Connie explored. We met up outside the lobby, umbrellas in hand, and made our way to the theatre. Our front row center tickets were at will call, and as we made our way into the theatre, it was sprinkling with the kind of rain that’s just potent enough to need an umbrella but so light that I felt a little silly having one out.
Behind us were several alumni members of the theatre. It was alumni weekend, and so anyone who had ever participated in Jenny Wiley Theatre was invited back for a tour of the stage and a celebration of what must have been better times.
The show began; it continued to drizzle. There were no more than fifty people in the amphitheater, which sat at least three times that. At some point during the show, the older man next to us started talking on his cell phone. Loudly. It was so shockingly brazen that I froze and then looked around to make sure I wasn’t imaging it.
Just as I’d had enough of him, the rain started coming down. This stopped me from what would have likely been an unfortunate confrontation. The show was building to the big finale in Act One, and the actors on stage plowed through their musical number, incorporating their umbrellas. It was quite remarkable.
It was pouring. We started wondering about the potential of the show being canceled. We high-tailed it to the exit of the theatre area. All of a sudden, we heard a giant crack somewhere behind the stage. We ran to the car. Tyler texted us that they were stopping the show.
And also, the woods were on fire.
A transformer blew up and caught the trees next to it on fire.
We sat in the lobby and watched the cast and audience come in. Power was out in half the building, including in the bar. They were graciously providing soft drinks for free and trying to appease thirsty alumni who were short on cash.
The three of us were chatting about the unique situation we were in. We were lamenting that the show ended early. Tyler told us how fabulous the woman playing “Motormouth Maybelle” was.
Then, there in the dark, a hush came over the room. The African-American singers in the cast had started an acapella version of “I Know Where I’ve Been,” the dramatic show-stopping ballad from “Hairspray.”
Goosebumps. Chills. Tears. And a rousing, well-deserved standing ovation followed. Just as we’d given up hope that the trip was ruined, we were magically transported to a musical paradise.
Rain, power outages, and forest fires could have made this a disappointing journey, but the power of a great song turned our adventure around.