Native Mississippi sensibilities and the sparkle of Broadway charm bring the “Sweet Potato Queens” musical to the stage in Jackson in a show director Randy Redd describes as a Vegas fantasy spectacle of Mississippi author Jill Conner Browne’s life. In the lead role is Broadway star and Drama Desk Award nominee Janine LaManna. Redd, a Brookhaven native, previously helmed “Million Dollar Quartet” to an extended run at New Stage and brings Broadway and Off Broadway chops to the task. The new musical is loosely based on the hilarious best-sellers by Browne, THE Sweet Potato Queen, who spawned a worldwide phenomenon of Sweet Potato Queen (SPQ) Wannabes with her message on the power of play. Browne’s “royal” roots reach back to the start of Mal’s St. Paddy’s Parade (now Hal’s St. Paddy’s Parade) in Jackson, when she and a handful of gal pals dubbed themselves queens for fun and floated to fame.
“Sweet Potato Queens” opens Wednesday and runs through March 24 at New Stage Theatre.
Pop music and Broadway song icons Melissa Manchester (music), Rupert Holmes (book) and Sharon Vaughn (lyrics) are the writing team behind the musical, which does take some poetic license with Browne’s back story.
“Jill’s family is horrified they set her in a trailer park,” LaManna says, chuckling, “but as Rupert said, there’s nothing interesting about average to riches.’”
Redd reached out to LaManna for the part of Browne, aiming for the right mix of showbiz and heart.
“I read it, and I listened to it, and I said, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes!’” LaManna says. “Rupert is such a prolific writer, Melissa Manchester writes such beautiful music … The show is really fun, and the music is catchy and entertaining and poignant — everything you would really want in a musical.
“I always look for projects that are female-driven story lines. They’re so few and far between,” she says, and Browne’s uplifting story and growth to prominence as author and motivational speaker, had plenty of appeal. “I think we forget, as adults, that we’re allowed to play. And, Jill has given us license to do that.
“I kind of dig it. … I get her, a lot.”
The Jackson show is the first production of “Sweet Potato Queens” licensed by Theatrical Rights Worldwide. The musical was developed and workshopped by TUTS Underground in Houston, Texas, and had its world premiere there in 2016.
“It’s perfect that it’s here, and that it’s in conjunction with the original parade,” Browne says. The musical’s final weekend coincides with the now monstrously popular Hal’s St. Paddy’s Parade & Festival and the Sweet Potato Queens’ return to it after about an eight-year absence.
Redd says the musical is “very theatrical … It’s not a movie. It’s not cinematic. It is ‘A Show.’”
“It’s like, ‘The Jill Conner Browne Show,’” he says, “all a kind of fantasy fever dream. … imagining her life as a show, as a big Vegas spectacle.”
He came aboard last summer, reading three different versions of the musical, and has been in constant communication with its writers, to develop and focus it toward a Jackson audience. “They’ve been so open to it,” says Redd. He’s a “huge fan” of Holmes. “Not only is he famous for the piña colada song (‘Escape’) but he wrote the ‘Mystery of Edmund Drood,” which won five Tony Awards, and he grew up listening to the Grammy Award-winning Manchester’s music. “I’m trying not to be, like, totally fanboy about it.
“It’s a fantastic score,” Redd says. “I’m very picky when it comes to writing music, and especially musical theater for a Southern story. … She gets the tone of it right, the flavor of it.”
Manchester was introduced to Browne through a story in the Los Angeles Times years ago. “As I was reading the way she speaks, I could start to hear music, because she has a very specific literary voice,” Manchester says, “and I committed to bringing her to the stage that day.” She was in Jackson over the weekend — “sitting in on rehearsals, just to be of service, if anybody has any questions,” she says — and plans to return for the musical’s opening, and for the parade weekend. “I was at the parade a long time ago, just to see what it was. Blew my mind.”
Bringing the story to stage of someone so locally prominent and still living, in her hometown, proves both intimidating and fascinating. When Browne came by to meet the cast, she held court and left them in stitches, Redd says, laughing. “She’s sooo funny … she did, like, a killer 45-minute set down there. It was so helpful to see the charisma.
“We’re just lucky we have Janine to embody all of those things,” he says with a teasing sidelong glance at his star.
LaManna says, “I may not have enough time with her or with the project to really get her spot-on. I’m shy about 7 inches, for one,” she says (Browne is 6 feet tall). “But what I lack in height, I make up for it in lipstick, hair height and cosmetics.
“It is kind of a daunting task, but I have to put that aside. Because, if I shoot for a spot-on imitation of Jill, I’m gonna fall short,” she says with a laugh and a rimshot.
With Jill as narrator, the musical jumps back into her past as a young mom, to share her story. “It started from a real sense of fun and play,” Redd says, and unlocks that thing in all of us that wants to show off, perform, be seen and be recognized.
“There are so many different layers to this casserole that you’ve made on that stage,” LaManna tells him. And, his Mississippi roots are vital to the task of bringing it home. “You would need a director with that kind of knowledge and that vocabulary, in order to make it a love letter to Jackson, as well as Jill’s story.”
“Sweet Potato Queens” performances are March 13-24 at New Stage Theatre. Tickets are $35 with discounts for students, seniors and groups, at the theater box office at 1100 Carlisle St., at www.newstagetheatre.com and 601-948-3531.