New City Players in South Florida
By: Aaron Krause - Jul 18, 2023
At different points during Stephen Brown’s funny and touching coming-of-age comedy-drama, Little Montgomery, characters stand armed. Specifically, they wield weapons such as a gun, hammer, and toy cow (“Put down the cow,” a character commands another threatening to use the stuffed animal as a destructive object.
While his characters are armed, Brown isn’t. Indeed, while experiencing Little Montgomery, you never feel as though the playwright is hammering you over the head with messages. Rather, through comedy, Brown gently disarms us so that we are receptive to themes such as family (not just the traditional “nuclear” kind), the power of art, the need we all feel to belong somewhere, be useful, and connect with others.
Brown, whose writing is vivid and humorous, strikes a nice balance between comedy and poignancy in Little Montgomery. It is running through July 23 in a believable, energetic, and laugh-filled professional Southeastern premiere production by Ft. Lauderdale’s New City Players (NCP). The venue is Island City Stage’s theater, an intimate space in nearby Wilton Manors.
Under Michael Gioia’s assured and detailed direction, the actors convey their characters’ humanity and are funny and intense without begging for laughs or acting forcefully. Meanwhile, the designers plant us in a specific, visually-appealing world full of relatable, likable characters.
In particular, Little Montgomery takes place during the present in small-town Sheepshead County, Texas. There, life has not been particularly joyful for 16-year-old best friends Megan and Kimmy. For instance, Megan grew up with an adoptive family she finds annoying, while Kimmy’s peers teased her.
To his credit, Brown weaves this information into the story as the play progresses rather than relying on clunky exposition early on. Instead, the play begins with a kidnapping. Specifically, Megan decides to kidnap Country music singer Rick Montgomery for a reason you will learn if you see the play. While Kimmy is not thrilled at the prospect of holding Montgomery hostage, she agrees to participate in Megan’s plan. After all, Megan is Kimmy’s “soul friend.” In fact, Kimmy feels devastated when Megan shuns her.
After the teens kidnap Montgomery and keep him against his will, the news reaches bumbling cops Chet and Larry. The policemen, armed with their own problems, report to Police Chief Patty, a strong female character who operates her department with confidence, pride, and no nonsense. Patty, whom you sense harbors ambitions greater than heading a small-town police department with scant resources, does not want to screw up this case. But with Chet and Larry taking it on, the chief – and Montgomery — will have to be patient. By the way, Brown never mentions whether Chet, Larry, and Patty are the only ones staffing the department. However, we learn that the department’s headquarters includes a printer that operates slower than a turtle moves.
Little Montgomery is not merely a wild goose chase between the perpetrators and the police. In addition, Brown presents to us sympathetic characters who are, in a sense, lost and seeking more from life. For instance, the spirited yet inept Chet treats his job as though he were a filmmaker shooting footage for his YouTube channel’s cop show. He uses his body camera to film his partner describing the scene of a crime. Chet’s calling is showbusiness rather than law enforcement, you might think to yourself. And you’d probably be right.
As for the hapless Larry, he cannot seem to get anything right. Whether it is parenting or police work, he appears to constantly fail. Perhaps you can relate to him if you or anyone you know or love feels like a perpetual failure. If you don’t know such a person, seeing Little Montgomery may allow you to more easily empathize with such an individual.
“You’re a desk cop. You know?” Patty tells Larry. “You’re the guy who’s really good at filing reports. And making sure the break room is stocked. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not a bad thing. But that’s what you are. You’re not the guy who goes and gets the bad guy.”
Meanwhile, Kimmy, who loves to perform, receives a similar dose of reality from Montgomery when he tells her she should no longer sing. But whether or not he wants to hear it, Kimmy sings him a song. Through it, you sense that she unleashes years of pent-up frustration and a burning desire to express herself musically.
Speaking of song, Little Montgomery is not a musical, in which the songs are as essential to the storytelling as dialogue. However, Brown’s piece is a play with music, one in which the songs reflect the piece’s locale, lending a country flavor to the proceedings. Alex Joyel composed evocative interludes that carry a country flavor. During the show, Joyel stands offstage, flawlessly providing background guitar music. Some of it is intense, adding energy to the narrative, while other background music is more contemplative.
In addition to Joyel’s background music, two scenes include songs that feature lyrics by Brown and music by Eliza Simpson. One of the songs in the play is “Star Quality,” which Kimmy sings to Montgomery. The other song, “Little Montgomery,” comes during a touching scene during which the country singer’s late wife sings the number (recorded). Actually, Laura Creel wraps her soulful voice around the song, with guitar and harmonica by Josh Diaz.
At first, Little Montgomery seems like little more than an escapist comedy written merely to entertain audiences. But later on, especially during the second half of this roughly two-and-a-half-hour show, Brown weaves in serious themes. And in the end, it is a touching coming-of-age tale and a poignant piece. Surely, it will move anybody who desires more out of life and wishes to feel like they belong somewhere and have a purpose.
True, at the end of the play, the characters do not find everything they are seeking. But by the end, at least one character has undergone a positive change. Specifically, that individual is Megan. The teenage girl starts out as an impulsive and intense, troubled youth. However, by the end, she has matured into a more responsible young lady.
As the talented Krystal Millie Valdes sensitively portrays her, the change happens seamlessly, almost unnoticeably.
Valdes, who is no stranger to South Florida live theater audiences, shines at naturally portraying intense folks full of nervous energy. But the versatile Valdes has also proven that she can portray more low-key characters with equal skill.
As Megan, Valdes properly, at first, lends the youth a dogged determination and focus. You get the sense that once she puts her mind to accomplish something, there is no turning back. However, as Valdes portrays her, Megan does not quite come across as a troublemaker who would start fires at school or kidnap people. But she talks tougher, in a lower-pitched voice, once the character dons a mask to conceal her identity from Montgomery.
Unquestionably, Valdes eventually makes us feel for Megan by imbuing her with humanity and vulnerability.
Opposite Valdes, Casey Sacco shines as Kimmy. Specifically, the performer lends the girl a wide-eyed naivete, sweetness, and eagerness that makes Kimmy seem like the opposite of Megan.
Sacco also imbues Kimmy with believable frustration and emotional pain that endear us to the character. And Sacco pours her heart and soul into a song that she sings to Montgomery. We get the sense that Kimmy desperately wants the country singer to tell her that she is talented.
A knock on Sacco’s performance is that Kimmy's crying sounds fake after Megan says something to hurt Kimmy’s feelings toward the beginning of the play. Otherwise, Sacco turns in a believable performance and shares strong chemistry with Valdes. Also, both performers, while older than their characters, could pass for teenagers in voice and appearance.
As the police chief, Elizabeth Price injects her character with a convincing swagger and instills her with pride and confidence. At times, an amused smile or an arched eyebrow from Price speaks louder than words. When necessary, Price’s Chief Patty is commanding and stern enough to let people know that she is in charge – and if you don’t like it, tough. Deal with it.
The male performers also turn in strong performances.
Timothy Mark Davis, NCP’s Producing Artistic Director and a versatile actor, is a hoot as police officer Chet. Indeed, Davis lends the policeman a fiercely competitive and playful energy that might call to mind actor Jim Carrey. But as intense as Chet can act, Davis ensures that he is subservient when police chief Patty asserts herself as the boss.
Davis also lends Chet an encouraging demeanor when his partner, Larry, is down on himself – which is almost always.
Speaking of Larry, Seth Trucks invests him with a timidness that seems appropriate for this Charlie Brown-like man who lacks self-confidence and seems like a perpetual failure. But Trucks’ Larrry also possesses an endearing awkwardness and eagerness that make you feel for him. When it comes time for Larry to break down, believable emotional pain pours from Trucks’ voice.
Little Montgomery features at least one plot twist that we won’t reveal. And, please, don’t spoil it for others once you have seen the show. All we will say is that the surprise involves the titular fictional country singer.
Speaking of him, Todd Bruno lends him a believably confused demeanor that is understandable for a pill-popping individual who may have suffered a concussion during a kidnapping. When Montgomery is more alert, Bruno, his face bloody. (fake) injects the man with a sarcastic edge and at other times, sincerity.
The performers portray their roles on a set that is simple yet effective, with multiple locations on stage at the same time. The set includes a gorgeously painted backdrop of a night sky with clouds and stars by Jordon Armstrong. It is not clear, though, what that is supposed to convey about the play or NCP’s production. Actually, the entire theater, not just the stage, becomes Sheepshead County, Texas. Decorations suggesting small-town Texas fill the auditorium.
In addition to the mostly effective set design, the lighting appropriately highlights the characters and the color-choice is wise. For example, when Brown introduces us to the policemen, blue and red lights flash.
Brown, who deftly combines heartfelt and humorous moments in his works, is a playwright with whom South Florida audiences may be familiar. Indeed, Theatre Lab at FAU presented an impressive world premiere production of his touching play, Everything is Super Great late in 2019. And in September, Theatre Lab will offer the Florida premiere of Brown’s play, The Many Wonderous Realities of Jasmine Starr-Kid. The show will serve as the company’s Heckscher Theatre for Families production.
NCP’s production of Little Montgomery runs through July 23 at Island City Stage. Remaining performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. The theater is located at 2304 Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors. For tickets, go to New City Players. Tickets are $35 for adults, $30 for seniors (65+), and $20 for students (under 25 with ID). Thursday’s performance will feature $20 tickets for all. There will be a talk back event after Sunday’s show with the cast and creative team.