The name of the finale song in Smaller is “When All Is Said and Done.” It sounds good, and it’s performed well. However, when all is said and done, I’m not quite sure what I think of this musical.
A tale of prisoners who are trying break free, Slammer raises questions about right and wrong and law and order. It has good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things. This show has the potential to be complex, morally ambiguous and intellectually challenging, but it does not fulfill its potential in any of those areas. Instead it is dull, straightforward and musically disappointing. What should be a character-driven story of survival is instead a frothy attempt at a comedy that is not even funny most of the time.
Slammer tells the story of Tabitha, a good-hearted girl who is wrongfully arrested for dealing drug that were planted in her suitcase at the airport. She is promptly thrown into a women’s federal prison where her other inmates are delighted at the fresh meat that is provided for them. Tabitha soon learns that prisons have become part of the private economic sector, utilizing the inmates for cheap labor and putting cost-effeciency above everything else. The prison is run by Smiley, a skirt-chasing smarmy guard (Saverio Guerra) and Eva, an ambitious businesswoman, played by Lannyl Stephens. Together the two place profit over the health and well-being of the inmates, much to the despair and disdain of the ingénue Tabitha.
Tabitha is looked after by the Reverend Mama, played in a show-stopping performance by Sandra Reaves-Phillips. Mama knows how the prison is run and she runs the women in the prison. All of the inmates love her unfailingly and it is the desire to avenge wrong-doings done to her that unites them. When Tabitha discovers Smiley’s secret love for dancing, she convinces him to let the inmates put on a show in an attempt to escape the prison and the girls plan their revenge.
What ensues is an attempt at satire, but, sadly, the show never solidifies what it is satirizing. Is it corporations? The legal system? Prisons themselves? All of these possibilities are touched upon, but none of them come to fruition. At what is supposed to be the climax of the show, Eva implores Smiley to, “Think of your insurance! Your 401K!” but the joke falls flat. Instead, the show feels flat and somewhat frustrating. These actors are working very hard, but for what?
The role of Tabitha, played by Merril Grant, is supposed to be the driving force of the show. At their first confrontation, Smiley tells her, “You’re shaking things up here.” But that line simply is not true. Grant plays Tabitha’s wide-eyed innocence as apathy, and her development from a victim to a survivor is written into the script but not played live onstage. When she says, “I am having thoughts I never had before,” the line is unbelievable. The supporting cast is somewhat stronger with Tammi Cubilette as Caramel, and Courtney Wissinger as Tina giving everything they’ve go to their performances. Sadly, little can come from that dedication.
And then there are the songs. The show is peppered with melodies, meant to develop the character and further the plot, but there are too many of them and none of them are developed enough. One of the more enjoyable performances is Smiley’s “Manliest Man,” which is reminiscent of Chicago, but Guerra’s performance is dull when it could be thrilling. “The Good Ol’ Bad Ol’ Days” is a cheap playoff of “The Good Old Days” from Damn Yankees, and it could be entertaining but is simply too short. The highlight of the show is Reverend Mama’s first-act finale of “Along the Road,” a gospel-style song that brings down the house. Phillips’ performance is show-stopping and rightfully so. If only there were more moments like this in the show.