Friends in Low Places, starring Katie McGrath.

By Sarah Downs

As the year winds down, and life is on that between Christmas and New Year’s pause, we can take a chance to reflect on the past 360 (or so) days.  In a year as dramatic as this, Covid-19 greatly magnifies that ‘pause.’  Katie McGrath’s upbeat show Friends in Low Places is just the ticket to take us out of ourselves for a moment.

Kicking off the evening with Who I Am, a tune of reflective affirmation by country singer Jessica Andrews, McGrath establishes a narrative style for the ensuing show.  Building on her musical roots in Motown, McGrath and Musical Director Rick Jensen recontextualize country tunes by familiar writers such as Garth Brooks and the legendary Tammy Wynette, telling familiar stories in a different way.

There are also surprise guests, in the form of Peter Dunne and Robert Breig, singing two comedy songs, Southside Lady and Toasted Ravioli.  The comic interlude adds a touch of offbeat levity which only at-home livestream performance can make possible.  Onstage it might feel a bit more like vaudeville (which would also be fun), but in livestream it feels more like Uncle Frank has joined the zoom and has something to say.  Hey, if we’re going to be singing from afar, then let’s have some fun with it.

McGrath has a strong, contralto voice.  It faltered a bit in the duet of Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds, but otherwise was musically solid.  Her sound matches country music’s texture – at times dark and gravelly, and at other times moving into awarmer belt and head voice that marries youth to experience. You hear her maturity in songs like The Chair by George Paisley, a veritable short story dashed off in a handful of verses.  Two people meet in a bar, and inner lonely monologue transforms outer experience.  McGrath brings the scene to lifewith her nuanced performance.  So, too, in Remember When by Alan Jackson.  Jensen and McGrath lean into the nostalgia in both style and tempo, leaving space for an emotional echo.

Garth Brooks’ The Dance and If Tomorrow Never Comes stand out for the simplicity with which McGrath sings them, demonstrating how much more you get with less.  She also lightens the mood with songs like Shameless by Garth Brooks, Me Neither by Brad Paisley and It’s a Great Day to be Alive by Travis Tritt, as well as straight up Motown in a duet of the Commodores’ hit Sail On.  I can feel the strong hand of Director Lina Koutrakos throughout the show.  Koutrakos has an unerring ear for the right repertoire in the right voice.  She is an exceptional storyteller and coach, who brings out the best in a singer.

Katie McGrath and Rick Jensen make a good team.  Jensen is an extraordinarily talented musician and a composer in his own right.  He can play anything and is a true partner in performance.  My favorite of their collaborations is the smashing arrangement of Garth Brooks’ I’ve Got Friends in Low Places.  Jensen and McGrath have transformed a fun, sawdust kicking up tune into a sexy, bluesy number that yet honors the humor of the original.  Honky Tonk meets Frank Sinatra.

I have never listened to much country music, but if Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette are anything to go by, I have to agree with the assessment that “country music is three chords and the truth” – but I would be more generous with the chord count.  Wynette’s anthem Stand By Your Man, which McGrath sings with heart and humor is a prime example.  Country music writers channel the emotional constants of love, longing and loss.  Indeed, whatever the genre, all songwriters seem to return again and again to those subjects.  Stand By Your Man could be Something Wonderful (from the musical The King and I) transported.  Wynette’s And if you love him, oh be proud of him, ‘Causeafter all, he’s just a man” could be Rogers & Hammerstein’s “You’ll always go along, defend him when he’s wrong, And tell him when he’s strong, he is wonderful.” – with a healthy twang. 

We’re all on the same wavelength, if sometimes in a different key.

The nostalgic final duet, “George & Greta,” written by McGrath and Jensen brought tears to my eye.  Building on the iconic image of the sailor (George) kissing an unsuspecting nurse (Greta) in Times Square on that day in 1945 when the Allies celebrated Victory over Japan and thus an end to war, the duetperfectly evokes the spirit of our time and the huge challenges we’ve faced this year of Covid-19.  George & Greta had their V-J Day, and we will have our “V-C Day.”   Victory over Covidwill render us positively giddy with relief, and will likely lead to a massive outbreak of hugging, so get your arms ready!

Friends in Low Places, starring Katie McGrath.  Rick Jensen, Musical Director.  Lina Koutrakos, Director.

Presented by Blue Strawberry Showroom & Lounge