Topeka may be a sprawling city nowadays, but in reality it's really just an overgrown Kansas town whose roots are firmly entrenched in the country lifestyle. Lawrence has that whole arts community vibe going, and Kansas City is as metropolitan as any Midwest city can be, but Topeka is steeped in a twangier tradition. At least that's how one long-time Topeka performer sees it.
Teri Walton has been with the Topeka Civic Theatre and Academy since its inception more than 30 years ago. She teaches theater and performs with the group annually, and she knows it's country music that will fill Topeka entertainment venues.
"We're a bunch of hicks," Walton says with a good-natured, throaty laugh.
That's part of the reasoning behind the opening of "Honky Tonk Angels" at the Topeka Civic Theatre. While other troupes are going into holiday-overload mode, with never-ending runs of "The Nutcracker," TCT is banking on family fare with a country spin to fill its auditorium.
Although some Topeka citizens will balk at the whole country theory, the proof lies in the success of past area events. Last year one theater changed its schedule from a run of the rock-opera "Tommy" to the 50-year-old "Oklahoma," based on audience preference. In the past few years, it's been shows like "The Will Rogers Follies" and comedians such as Jeff Foxworthy that have brought the house down at the Topeka Performing Arts Center, while the civic theater program enjoyed one of its biggest successes last year with the one-woman show based on the life of C&W crooner Patsy Cline.
Does anyone see a pattern developing here?
The star of the Cline tribute was Walton, whose husky, strong voice has a range that can handle about any song in any role. She's carrying another big load in "Honky Tonk Angels," but sharing the stage with two other actresses, Patti Van Slyke and Cecilia Yager, makes it a bit easier.
"It's not near as hard as 'Patsy,' where it was quite a challenge to be her. This is more fun. The pressure is not there. There are three characters in this, and Patti and Cecilia are a couple of divas like myself," Walton says, laughing again.
The theme running through "Angels" is that of following and fulfilling dreams. Angela (Walton) is a Texas housewife, Sue Ellen (Van Slyke) is a country girl gone "citified" and Darlene (Yager) is described in the cast notes as simple and sweet. All three meet on a bus headed for Nashville, Tenn., and, after some soul-sharing, decide to form a country trio.
As they hit Nashville's Music Row in search of fame, they perform tunes from the likes of Kitty Wells, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Bobby Gentry. The sheer volume of familiar tunes has led the show to sell out most of its 24-run performances, and it presents several challenges to the actresses.
"There is a massive amount of music; it's more like a concert," Walton says. "And there are so many costume changes that come at you rapid-fire."
To facilitate the right amount of audience hand-clapping and participation, the musician's pit-level performance area is even with the audience. A staircase connects the stage to the pit, so the actresses can walk out into the audience to perform numbers. It's a good fit for Walton, who graduated from Kansas University with a bachelor's degree in theater, and who spent several years performing a solo nightclub act.
"We can walk out into the audience, and that makes it more of a nightclub style. It makes it more intimate," she says. "It's fabulous and the audience loves it. It brings back all kinds of musical memories for people; it's that type of piece."