BARBARA’S BLUE KITCHEN at Aurora Theatre’s Our Stage Onscreen Digital Series

An Experimental Production of Barbara’s Blue Kitchen Kicks Off The Our Stage Onscreen Digital Series at Aurora Theatre

BWW Review: BARBARA'S BLUE KITCHEN at Aurora Theatre's Our Stage Onscreen Digital Series
Chloe Kay
Photo by Casey Gardner

News flash: We’re in the middle of a pandemic. That means there are no benches and chairs to sit on in your local Barnes & Noble. Baseball patrons are made of cardboard. And the theaters are closed. This last one stings the most, but the best Atlanta theaters are adapting to fill the void left by the absence of live theater. We’ve got drive-in cabarets. We’ve got outdoor opera. And we’ve got a variety of online stream-from-home offerings, including the new Our Stage Onscreen Digital Series at Aurora Theatre, a series that brings performing arts to homebound season supporters and new audiences while providing a safe workspace for Atlanta theatre artists. The inaugural offering, streaming now through October 4 for a hefty $30 rental fee, is Barbara’s Blue Kitchen, a fun – if slightly underbaked – musical with a book, music, and lyrics by Lori Fisher. The small-cast musical works hard to conjure up a slice of homespun Southern life through portraits of workers and customers in a small Southern diner. A brave Chloe Kay, the actor who plays all of the characters in the beautifully rendered diner, works hard to deliver an engaging evening of for-the-screen theater, but this first outing is hindered by technical challenges and, regrettably, by the fact that producing theater specifically for the screen is a tricky tricky business.

The musical tells the story of Barbara Jean, the owner of the small-town diner that serving up more than just their famous Mudslide pie. It’s also serving up all of the gossip in the small town of Watertown, Tennessee. We learn that Barbara Jean’s on-again-off-again hairstylist boyfriend, Lombardo, beloved if only for the fact that he’s been able to cover Barbara Jean’s bald spot, is taking another girl on a Bahaman vacation. We learn that little Tommy Lee’s stomach hurts on the outside from the 23 stitches he got after his dog, Killer, bit him and that it hurts on the inside from eating almost three hamburgers. And we learn that Miss Tessie’s husband died from botulism after eating spinach dip at the Happiness Home retirement community even though he didn’t like vegetables.

There’s a lot to like about the 2002 musical. Some of the quirky songs like “I Want My Kidney Back” and “Women Aren’t Supposed to Go Bald” showcase, as the titles suggest, wonderfully inventive lyrics. That’s the greatest strength of the musical. The homespun flavor of the news that travels through the diner is also fun, though, as often happens with Southern comedic dramas, it’s peppered with words like “critter” and “ain’t” that feel overdone. The book features a radio host, played here by a second actor, who is integrated in an interesting and atmospheric way as he offers up small-town advertisements, jingles, and apologies.

The biggest problem with the musical is that it doesn’t manage an actual

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Aurora streams musical ‘Barbara’s Blue Kitchen’

Musical director Ann-Carol Pence’s band features Skyler Brown on guitar, Maurice Figgins on acoustic bass and Hayden Rowe on violin. Brown also plays second fiddle, as it were, with a couple of bit parts (as the diner’s cook and as a radio DJ). Neither he nor Kay is a member of Actor’s Equity, but both of them are Aurora apprentice-company alums.

Kay is fine delineating her many roles, which also include a mousy new waitress, a lonely old widow and a sensible nurse, as well as Barbara’s volatile sister, her precocious little nephew, and even the amorous Italian hairdresser who is her boyfriend. Fischer specifically intended the script to be performed by one actress (she herself did it off-Broadway), not unlike those “Greater Tuna” comedies in which two actors play all the bumpkin stereotypes of a Texas town.

For Aurora’s purposes, the on-camera format makes the character transitions fairly seamless, while also eliminating the on-stage shtick of a lot of quick entrances and exits and costume changes. But it also prompts more than a few awkward moments, where Anderson alternates between close-ups of two people having a conversation and then cuts to a wider angle of one or the other simply talking into thin air. (One scene contains a nifty visual effect, where we actually seem to glimpse two of Kay’s characters interacting in the same shot.)

Running just 80 minutes, “Barbara’s Blue Kitchen” is harmless enough, if not very intellectually stimulating. Dealing in such hokey Southern idiosyncrasies isn’t for all tastes. For example, one invisible customer orders a pulled pork platter and then wants to “hold the pulled pork.”. Surely, there must be countless one-set, two-actor shows that are much better formulated on the whole.

Even so, there’s no mistaking the pleasure of streaming a performance that’s the closest thing we’ve seen in months to an in-person theater production — with or without the live audience.

THEATER REVIEW

“Barbara’s Blue Kitchen”

Available for streaming through Oct. 4. $30 per view. 678-226-6222, auroratheatre.com.

Bottom line: A keen idea that’s slickly produced, if somewhat impaired by its middling material.

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