haunted_hillbilly

"Haunted Hillbilly," a tale of fame, fortune and a big fall from stardom, plays at the Centaur Theatre through early June. Pictured are Greg Kramer as Nudie and Daniel Brochu as Erskine Mole.

By STEVEN HOWELL

It's a little bit country, a little bit vampire-infused gay-themed love story — wait, what?

The Centaur Theatre presents "Haunted Hillbilly," a tale of fame, fortune and a big fall from stardom set to a toe-tappin' country-and-western live soundtrack.

The work is based on the novel by Derek McCormack and adapted for the stage by SideMart Theatrical Grocery alum Graham Cuthbertson, who also stars in the play as Pastor Ray.

"'Haunted Hillbilly' is a very familiar story told in a unique way," Cuthbertson said. "It's the story of a country western singer (Hyram Woodside) who gets torn between the lure of fame, and, I suppose, the love of a good woman. And we watch his rise, and we watch his descent."

Woodside's rise and fall unfolds in a magical subplot of ridiculous scenarios, Cuthbertson said.

"It plays into a lot of the old myth of country singers," he said. "Everything from meeting the devil at the crossroads to magical, possessed suits and a Faustian bargain."

The play begins in Tennessee in 1953 when protagonist Woodside meets a couturier or wardrobe designer named Nudie.

"Nudie lures Hyram with these incredibly ornate and exciting suits," Cuthbertson said. "It's clothing that really changes the man who wears them. It's clothing that makes everybody who sees it jealous."

Cuthbertson said the play takes great inspiration from Nudie suits and real-life tailor Nudie Cohn.

"Nudie (Cohn) clothed everybody from Hank Williams to Elvis," Cuthbertson said. "You couldn't miss his suits. They were super recognizable."

Think wide-legged, heavy polyester and an overabundance of collar and rhinestones. Elvis's famed gold lamé suit, which cost a whopping $10,000, was a Nudie creation.

"They're gaudy, ornate, hilarious and really cool in a lot of ways," Cuthbertson said.

The moment when Hyram puts on the suit — a jacket that shines and sparkles — Cuthbertson says that the audience "Ooohs" and "Ahhhs."

And when rival Erskine Mole gets a gander at the suit, he gets really jealous.

Cuthbertson said the play has been a labor of love for the past four years.

"We (SideMart) all fell in love with the book, and even though we were always working on other projects, we all thought how great this would be to adapt into a play."

In part, the adaptation lent itself to incorporating original elements of live music. The play was also a showpiece for SideMart to develop their sense of humor and style.

"We're very self aware without being irreverent," Cuthbertson said. "We don't like parody. We like satire."

Cuthbertson added that the main focus is storytelling and entertaining an audience.

"At times, the language is a bit vulgar, and the sexual relationships in the play aren't considered mainstream," he said. "But we try not to be sensational. These are relationships that people can identify with."

Cuthbertson said the audience will feel sympathy for a couturier who falls in love with a country-music singer.

"We like exploring these places," he said. "Above all, we want it to be fun but not in a frivolous way."

Cuthbertson said SideMart's main goal was to introduce people to different theatrical possibilities.

"It's not your typical night out at the theater. It's not abstract or avant garde. We're just trying to find new ways to tell stories."

Steven Howell is the author of Montreal Essential Guide, a Sutro Media iPhone travel app available at iTunes.com.

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