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People's court

Theatrical Outfit hits high notes in disposable Mona

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Jim Wann's heart belongs to Southern truck stops and watering holes. The playwright/composer and his collaborators structure musicals around locales like the roadside diner of Pump Boys and Dinettes and the Carolina coastal fry shack of King Mackerel and the Blues Are Running. Wann's musicals tend to explain how great the places are rather than let the audience fall in love with them on their own, but his affections seem sincere.

His new courtroom musical The People vs. Mona, Theatrical Outfit's season opener, partly takes place at the Frogpad, a juke joint in the fictional town of Tippo, Ga. The play shows the Frogpad's influence on the town's psyche by using its furnishings for the courtroom, where most of the action transpires. An upended picnic table becomes the judge's bench, big cable spools become the attorney's desks and the plants of the deep South are in every corner. It's an eccentric touch, but certainly evokes a sense of place.

The Outfit reunites director Kate Warner and much of the cast of last summer's production of Pump Boys, forming an ensemble fit to bust with Southern charm and musical talent. The material itself proves fairly disposable, but individual numbers in The People vs. Mona hit undeniable highs.

Small-town defense attorney Jim Summerford (David Silverman) narrates how high-haired Mona Mae Katt (Rebekah Baty) has been charged with the murder of her husband of eight hours, music producer C.C. Katt. Defending Mona will be a challenge, as not only will she provide no alibi, but Jim's never won a case against ambitious prosecutor Mavis Frye (Katie Kneeland), who happens to be his fiancé.

Singing, "I'm not Raymond Burr/ Though I wish I were," Silverman proves most ingratiating when he encourages the Rialto Center audience to behave like courtroom onlookers -- to rise upon the arrival of Judge Jordan (Bernadine Mitchell) and give shocked gasps or troubled murmurs when appropriate to the testimony. Legal rituals like the swearing in of witnesses and the lawyers' statements are rendered in music.

In the song "Marilyn," Mona sings how Marilyn Monroe is her role model, but though Mona is branded as a "killer bimbo," Baty doesn't play the character as an air-headed blonde or a trailer park tramp. Such stereotypes aren't missed, but Baty's Mona can be surprisingly vanilla, at least in the dialogue-driven parts of the play. Still, Baty's versatility has ample opportunities to shine through, as when she sings a lovely rendition of the corny country ballad "When a Woman Believes in a Man," plays harmonica and electric guitar licks, does amusing dance steps and, during "Marching Through Tippo," twirls the baton like a born majorette.

"Marching" is one of several second-half showstoppers in which The People vs. Mona really clicks. Gospel tunes invariably turn up in Southern-flavored musicals, but "Have You Done Forgot Your Bible" takes a fresh approach, with Mitchell and Kneeland debating, in song, biblical notions of mercy vs. justice.

Best of all is Bryan Mercer's appearance as Blind Willy, a sightless but irrepressible bluesman whose tune explains his 20-20 sense of smell. Mercer demonstrates remarkable showmanship, as here he also plays the keyboards and portrays a spry codger, a nervous bailiff and, in drag, a vampy journalist.

Ryan Richardson amusingly portrays a police officer obsessed with Oklahoma who testifies in song and sustains long notes for comic effect. But the goodwill generated by the show's highlights tends to be undercut by the blander tunes or more annoying characterizations, like Jason Chimonides' Indian motel keeper. Kneeland tries to have fun with the Mavis role, but too many contrivances are built into the character, who's not only jealous of Mona, but is running for mayor and wishes to tear down the beloved Frogpad.

The People vs. Mona moves like one of those pre-Wright Brothers flying contraptions: It frequently achieves lift- off, especially in Act Two, but can't stay airborne for the duration. Despite its eagerness to please, the material itself should be found guilty of committing multiple acts of silly Southern camp. The Theatrical Outfit's spirited cast, however, completely exonerates itself.

The People vs. Mona plays through July 29 at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts, 80 Forsythe St., with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sun. $12-$50. 404-651-4727.

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