Journey To Dollywood - Theater Review

“There isn’t any good theater in Los Angeles.”  It’s an oft-heard refrain here in Tinseltown, usually uttered by those who eschew theater for “American Idol” and “Friends” re-runs or have their noses in the air because they understudied Off-Off Broadway.  Well let it be known that there is good theater in Los Angeles, and those in doubt need only head to The Matrix Theater on Melrose to see Jessie McCormack’s “Journey to Dollywood.”  McCormack has written an absolutely delightful play that never stands still with a constant stream of spirited repartee and engaging characters that you can’t help but feel for.

Henry Gummer & Jessie McCormack in "Journey to Dollywood"

McCormack plays Jolene, a disaffected small-town waitress with a “lying problem” and a fondness for Q-tips who idolizes Dolly Parton as a rags-to-riches symbol of the possibilities in life.  Surrounded by a cast of loonies including Manny, her on again-off again fiancée, and Cici, her sassy and sexy co-worker, Jolene is portrayed wonderfully by McCormack whose face bears the fixity of someone in constant torment.  Indeed, McCormack’s acting is as skilled as her writing is clever.  She almost casually tosses off her zingers without ever letting us forget that she is a woman in distress.

Henry Gummer & Erik Van Wyck in "Journey to Dollywood"

When a stranger named Joshua (Parton fans will catch the joke here), played by Henry Gummer, arrives in Jolene’s diner as he waits for his car to be fixed, all Jolene’s aggravations surface.  Eric Van Wyck’s Manny is deliciously crude, an equal-opportunity ball-buster whose creeping memory loss allows the others to poke fun at him.  Melissa Greenspan plays the adorable Cici, Jolene’s foil who harbors a secret and busts some balls of her own, but still retains a charm and sincere fondness for the other characters.

Why even Dolly herself makes an appearance, albeit in the form of a slide show at the end, and a hilarious voice-over at the beginning of the second act.  McCormack had given a copy of the play to Parton, who was so taken with it that she invited McCormack to her Nashville recording studio to record the take.

Jessie McCormack & Melissa Greenspan in "Journey to Dollywood"

Parton is well served by this play.  Some of her popular recordings are played during various moments of reflection by Jolene, only to be screechingly needle-scratch halted when Jolene’s reveries are interrupted by her ever-intrusive friends, whom she simply can’t escape in the tight confines of the diner.

The entire play is set in the diner, but interest never wanes as Rod McLachlan’s direction and tight blocking create an environment of constant motion, with excellent spacing that forces the audience to stay active as well.  With laughs aplenty, particularly a scene that evokes the Chief from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the audience was rapt and ever-smiling.  The only misstep was a moment of slight confusion near the beginning of the second act when Manny reverts to a milder persona that caused me to wonder if he was supposed to be playing another character.

Erik Van Wyck, Jessie McCormack, Henry Gummer & Melissa Greenspan in "Journey to Dollywood"

Amid the hilarity, Jolene is still distraught by her predicament and the encroaching death of her overweight and bed-ridden mother, whom we never meet, but get to know through Jolene’s humorous telephone interactions with her.  The play turns dramatically poignant in the second act as Jolene is forced to confront some painful choices, but the actors, McCormack and Van Wyck in particular, masterfully change gears to handle the affecting scenes.  Though the humor becomes darker, it is never abandoned, and Jolene ultimately finds the courage to reach out and move on.

Writer/Director/Actress Jessie McCormack in "Journey to Dollywood"

The performance drew a well-deserved standing ovation, and to those who dismiss Los Angeles theater, I can only say Kelly Clarkson and Lisa Kudrow never looked this good.


“Journey to Dollywood” runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 pm through October 27th, with a 3 pm Sunday matinee on September 16th at the Matrix Theater at 7657 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.  Tickets are $20 and can be obtained by calling (323) 960-4418 or going to www.plays411.com/dollywood


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