Sunday, June 23

Here You Come Again – Leeds Playhouse

‘What would Dolly do?’

That’s the premise for the UK version of a musical comedy based on some of the greatest songs from country music’s undoubted queen Dolly Parton and one of the all-time great songwriters in any genre.

Asking that question is fortysomething Kevin marooned in his parent’s attic during lockdown after splitting up with his boyfriend and his furlough pay is coming to an end. His boyhood room is a shrine to Dolly and as if by magic – or his subconscious – the relentlessly upbeat country and gay icon pops up to help her flamboyant, but secretly floundering, superfan find his way.

This is not only a love letter to a big hearted philanthropist who has distributed 150 million free books to kids because her beloved daddy couldn’t read, but to a hall of fame songwriter who as well as having 26 Billboard Country Chart numbers ones has also penned pop, disco and even rock hits.

Like all classic country songs there is a bittersweet storytelling element to Bruce Vilanch, Gabriel Barre and Tricia Paoluccio’s book with some dark themes that were part of the lockdown experience for most of us lurking around the wigs, rhinestones and some beautiful costumes designed by Paul Wills. Corrie writer Jonathan Harvey has skilfully adapted the American version to add plenty of British cultural references and some great jokes as he moves Wills’ cleverly designed attic from New York to Halifax.

Lifelong fan Tricia Paoluccio is quite simply Dolly Parton from the moment she struts onto the stage. You could close your eyes and think Tennessee’s finest export was in the room with us as she nails all the big numbers like 9 to 5 getting Dolly’s distinctive vocal style spot on, but her speaking voice is pure Parton. There’s far too many terrible Dolly drag acts around, but Paoluccio, with the approval of her idol for this show, is both gloriously glitzy, while getting down to the grit of a tough woman who under all the big wigs, boobs and homilies followed her own dreams from grinding rural poverty to opening a theme park.  

© Hugo Glendinning

Paoluccio has plenty of Broadway experience smashing a punchy version of Here You Come Again, which was Dolly’s breakout pop hit, and as she sings I Will Always Love You to Kevin she really goes deep to mine the raw emotions behind perhaps the most bittersweet number in the country canon…and that’s saying something. In some ways it’s Dolly’s minor songs that are the real heart of this musical like the supremely creepy Me and Little Andy that horrifies Kevin, and her version of God’s Coloring Book is a few minutes of grace and beauty.

Although the great live band and backing singers do pop up onstage from time to time this is a two-hander, and Steven Webb as Kevin could have been totally overshadowed by Paoluccio’s effortless charisma, but he more than holds his own. He brings West End experience to a tricky role that lurches from the P word (pity) to a selection of well timed gags from his nascent stand-up routine. Webb nails the jokes as well as showing the damage behind Kevin’s flippancy, and he’s also a decent singer taking the Kenny Rogers role during Islands in the Stream, and wonderfully over the top during a camp as Christmas Jolene routine.

Gabriel Barre’s direction turns Here You Come Again into a two hour country song full of melodrama, light, shade, neat magic tricks and some life lessons from a woman who despite her own travails remains relentlessly optimistic in a world that seems to be collapsing around our ears day by day. There’s an unexpected set change at the end, and as Paoluccio, Webb and the band belt out Light of a Clear Blue Morning there’s a sense that we just might be able to pull back from the brink – globally and personally.

There are probably some strange people who don’t like Dolly Parton, and they are sort of cloth eared fools you’d cross the street to avoid, but for the rest of us this warm hearted camp extravaganza is a chance to believe that dreams come true if you work hard enough…and have some talent. The Queen of Country famously observed ‘it costs a lot of money to look this cheap’, but there is nothing cut price about this ruthlessly efficient and funny musical that will appeal to superfans and folk who just like a casual bop to Jolene or 9 To 5.

Here You Come Again will no doubt do well in the West End as there are millions of fans of all ages who want to find out ‘what would Dolly do?’

Here You Come Again is at Leeds Playhouse until Saturday 8th June. To book 0113 2137700 or www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 20th May 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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