Poignant stories punctuate Swift Creek Mill's "Lies and Legends." 

True "Lies"

It's surprising how a good song can get to you. You're just sitting there, minding your own business, when the perfect marriage of words and melody hits you, and the next thing you know, you're blubbering like some dot-com CEO who's lost his last stock option. That's what happened to me as I listened to Debra Wagoner sing "Tangled Up Puppet" near the end of "Lies and Legends," the musical revue now running at Swift Creek Mill Theatre.

I'll be honest: I didn't expect to like this show. Subtitled "The Musical Stories of Harry Chapin," it offers a survey of the late songwriter's work, from his well-known hits "Taxi" and "Cat's in the Cradle," to lesser-known oddities like the sailor-and-his-wife tale, "Salt and Pepper." Chapin, who died in a 1981 car accident, could always spin a good yarn, but he also could get a bit maudlin for me. And even if I were an ardent fan, I was thinking that I'd sooner go out and buy the boxed set before I'd plunk down 20 bucks to see his work performed live (a comprehensive CD compilation of Chapin's work, "Story of a Life," came out two years ago).

But I did not anticipate the emotional depth that director Tom Width's talented cast of five would lend to some of Chapin's song-stories. Wagoner, in particular, infuses Chapin's bittersweet ballads with an earnest but understated sorrow that raises them from mere ditties to high drama. She delivers the show's first major dose of pathos in her narration of "Mr. Tanner," the tale of a simple man who is pushed into pursuing a dream and then is crushed by the results. Eric Williams plays Tanner and anchors the song with his simple Everyman charm and his smooth baritone.

With her robust and vibrant voice, Wagoner is the vocal powerhouse here, but fellow cast member Jacqueline O'Connor skillfully covers a wider range of moods, from the comic spunk she gives "Get Over It" to her grief-stricken anger in "Dogtown." On the male side of the equation, the dark and brooding Sean MacLaughlin delivers the strongest performance. His sensitive cowboy in "Mail Order Annie" is particularly impressive in contrast to the tormented killer he portrays in "Sniper," a song that has gained poignancy in the wake of recent school killings in California and Colorado.

There is minimal effort made to string these songs together in any thematic way, which makes the evening a bit of a scatter-gun affair. And if there is any major complaint with this production, it is the underuse of Joe Pabst. Pabst is a clever performer, but here, he is stuck trying to milk comic relief out of silly tunes like "Odd Job Man," a musical joke with a pretty lame punch line.

But no complaints can be made about musical director Paul Deiss and his outstanding backup band. Driving songs like "Shooting Star" are propelled by Deiss' dynamic piano playing and Sean DeBruyn's powerful bass line. Greg DeBruyn's sparkling guitar work brightens up many songs. Even if you are not a big Chapin fan, "Lies and Legends" is sure to include a story that will pluck your heartstrings.


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