Review: "Bettye and the Jockettes Spinning Records at the Holiday Inn" Plays a Fun Riff on a Female First

Bettye and the Jockettes Spinning Records at the Holiday Inn

Written by Christie Perfetti Williams

Directed by Sara Thigpen

Presented by Retro Productions at the Gene Frankel Theatre

24 Bond St., Manhattan, NYC

May 3-18, 2024

The Cast of Bettye and the Jockettes Spinning Records at the Holiday Inn. Photo by Greg Kanysicska.
An "All-Girl Radio Station" in the mid-1950s, the setting for Retro Productions' new play, Bettye and the Jockettes Spinning Records at the Holiday Inn, might seem like a fruitful milieu for a comedy, if a bit unrealistic: except that it really existed. While the show's characters are fictional–or in the case of station owner Sam Phillips (Joe Mathers) fictionalized, Memphis, Tennessee's WHER was founded in 1955, operating out of one of the titular hotels, and persisted until 1973. In the play's imagined WHER, it is 1956, and one departure and one arrival are set to roil the station. WHER's copywriter has just eloped, and her timing couldn't be worse, given that a pre-superstardom Elvis Presley is due for an interview at the station. Bettye (Heather E. Cunningham), who occupies the top of the on-air hierarchy, is awarded the interview over Kit (Alisha Spielmann), who believes that rock and roll is the future, even though Bettye bristles at making time for Elvis on a jazz station and is convinced that rock is a passing fad. Elvis's imminent arrival also brings the disruptive return of Ben (Matthew Tarricone), a former colleague of Bettye's at Sam's recording studio and now a record promoter. Meanwhile, the new copywriter, Catherine (Morgan Nadia Williams), might not actually be from the temp agency. Over the course of the day at WHER, bonds and loyalties will be tested, the expiration date of dreams and risk-taking will be examined, and the audience will have a great time.
Heather E. Cunningham in the title role of Bettye. Photo by Greg Kanysicska.
Esther (Tracey Beltrano), the WHER librarian, eternally shuttling around a stack of books balanced beneath her cat's eye glasses, and Dottie (Marie Elèna O'Brien), a saleswoman with a now-invalid "MRS degree," round out the roster of station employees. The women of WHER consider themselves, and Sam, a family, and, as a found family, they come to the Memphis station from different home states and different places in life and society. While they may face, or perceive, different obstacles related to age, body type, race, sexuality, and so on, they–and Ben–share a pursuit of finding that somewhere they can not only thrive but be fulfilled in doing so. Some of the characters may have differing visions of the future–Ben sees great things coming for TV–but the play suggests that more important than making the right business bet (Bettye may be wrong about rock, but jazz hasn't disappeared either) is not letting regret or fear dictate one's path in life. Even a perceptive observation by Esther that how adults tend to choose embracing anger over expressing sadness links to this theme, as she points to the fear of others' judgment as the motivation for such choices.

Bettye and the Jockettes unwinds its themes on an eye-catching pink and purple set adorned with some framed women's underthings and complete with a broadcast booth. The accomplished cast provides legitimately laugh-out-loud moments as well as generates some genuine pathos from their characters' entangled pasts and futures. Whether it's Mathers's Sam reacting to Bettye wearing pants, Spielmann's spirited Kit finally having it out with Sam, Cunningham and Tarricone embodying the chary dance of Ben and Bettye's reunion, or the depth O'Brien layers into Dottie's comic seductive Southernness, the performances keep the audience laughing with and rooting for these characters from the first moment to the last. Who needs the (future) King when you have the Jockettes?

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


Popular posts from this blog

Review: The Immersive "American Blues: 5 Short Plays by Tennessee Williams" Takes Audiences on a Marvelously Crafted Journey

Review: "How To Eat an Orange" Cuts into the Life of an Argentine Artist and Activist

Review: From Child Pose to Stand(ing) Up: "Yoga with Jillian" and "Penguin in Your Ear" at the Women in Theatre Festival