TheatreNOW, Wilmington’s permanent dinner-theatre venue, is celebrating their 2nd anniversary with a special two-week engagement of Tim Sells’ tribute to “The Gambler: Kenny Rogers.” Coupled with Chef Denise Gordon’s scrumptious menu, it is definitely an event worth attending.
I never had seen a tribute artist perform, so I was very curious what the experience would be. Would we the audience all pretend that he was in fact Rogers? Would he speak in the first person like Rogers? Would this be sort of a biography-infused show? I was quite curious.
The evening began with house music of the traditional-country variety and love songs, while the audience arrived and settled in with drinks. Boney Ives has developed some fun mixed drinks for the evening. (The table next to me ordered a round of “The Gamblers” to kick off the evening.) I munched my chopped salad with ranch dressing and marveled at its crunchy, though not starchy, texture. It had a hint of celery and red pepper.
While I ate, guests continued to enter. One lady came in humming “Ruby” and asked if Kenny had arrived, yet. The audience was clearly onboard for the evening. I finished off the chopped salad with a roll coated with sweetened honey butter. Gordon had managed to capture the taste-of-the-summer meals my mom served outside in our back yard.
When Sells appeared, I thought the ladies in front of me were going to faint. They were so excited. Sells got Rogers’ beard and his sparkling, friendly eyes right. His approach to singing Rogers’ music was almost reverential. It was like he was offering a prayer to Rogers, rather than trying to embody him. It created a fascinating performance style. For this show, it was just him onstage in Rogers’ signature blazer and black cowboy boots. No band or duet partners, just a man and his songs. It evoked images of an early singer, trying to make it. Sells broke the fourth wall pretty quickly. He informed the audience he loved pictures, and everyone could take as many as they liked. He mentioned a couple of the other tribute artists he likes to work with, and my first questions were answered: “I promise you, you will hear the song you want to hear tonight,” he stated.
“Ruby” cued up and he asked for the house lights to come up. Sells wandered through the audience, passing off the mic to audience members for the chorus. When he got to me, I grabbed my glass of wine and gave him smile with slight shake of the head (singing in public is just not an option for me). Picking up on the cues he reassured, “It’s OK, I like the land of Oz, too,” he grinned as he pointed at my shirt and passed to the next table.
When the main course came out, I was stunned at the size of the Brunswick stew portion. (My God! You could’ve floated a small continent in there!) A to-go box was clearly going to be in order. Carefully spiced and just thick enough to have body— but not enough to overwhelm—the stew was a real winner. It even made lima beans delightful. The potatoes were soft but still full-bodied. Other diners raved about their catfish and chicken dishes. I silently blessed Gordon for such an accomplished culinary evening.
Sells came back out for another set of songs, and I found myself wanting to hear more about Rogers’ life. Like many people, I knew many of his big hits, but I never realized how many were ballads. Nor did I know much about his life before big success. What did that road look like?
The gentleman at the table next to me began a one-man serenade for his wife. She was beaming, and gave him that “I can’t believe you are so romantic” look. The time span of Rogers career is such that my grandparents listened to him, and the silver-haired couple reminded me many of his country ballads are about finding permanence in a uncertain world. It made for an interesting evening that constructed a lot of emotional crescendos.
Dessert arrived in the form of Southern gooey-goodness: “Mississippi mud pie marries a Moon Pie and made a baby cake.” In other words, an Oreo-cookie crust with chocolate pudding and whipped marshmallow fluff covered in chocolate sauce. Sticky sweetness filled my plate, and after a bit, my shirt, too.
Sells came back for some of the more anticipated songs of the evening. When he began “Lucille,” the audience sang with him so loudly his eyebrows hit his hair line. It is possibly one of the best singalong drinking songs ever recorded. Do I need to tell you he ended the evening with “The Gambler”? The audience was thrilled. Energy surged the intimate theatre.
When I got home Jock asked me if he sounded like Rogers? My reply: “Well, when you hear a distinctive voice like Johnny Cash’s, you know it’s him even if it’s a song you never have heard. He just has an unmistakable voice.”
Jock nodded in agreement. “But Rogers?” he asked.
“Rogers has a good voice, but it’s not incredibly distinctive,” I paused. “He sings songs you can sing to, and he has great stage presence and audience skills. Sells sounds enough like him, and then you add in all the fun you have singing along, and it’s a combination that works. Everyone was having a great time. Even the guy who looked like he lives in a cubicle during the week was belting out ‘Blaze of Glory’ like he was the last cowboy on earth.”
“Well, I guess that’s what these things are about,” Jock agreed.
It really is what entertainment is about: losing ourselves in another narrative for a time, and maybe, within that moment, finding something very truthful about our own lives.
Fri. and Sat., July 25th-26th, 7 p.m.
TheatreNOW • 19 S. 10th St.