Frankie and Johnny Were Sweethearts

Rated 2.0 Frankie and Johnny Were Sweethearts has that “let’s-put-on-a-show” feel to it.Unfortunately, Thistle Dew Theatre’s new play never really rises above that earnest makeshift-show-in-a-barn level.

Thistle Dew’s artistic director, Thomas Kelly, starts off with a good idea—to dramatize the ballad of “Frankie and Johnny.” The lyrics, “Frankie and Johnny were lovers, oh my God how they could love … She shot her man, cause he did her wrong,” tells the story of a “woman of the night” who kills her lover when she discovers him two-timing her.

Kelly places the story in a 1920s Sacramento bar, Johnny’s Place, “the finest speakeasy west of the Sierra,” populated with “patrons, politicians and a few whores.” The set shows off a salon scene, complete with an old-time bar, piano, piano player and a small stage.

The first half is a fun concept—amateur night at Johnny’s Place, where the cast of characters, including a madam, a couple of good-time gals, gamblers, johns, the barkeep, the sheriff and the piano player, all strut their stuff. So we get renditions of well-intentioned, heart-felt songs such as “Frankie and Johnny,” “I Don’t Care,” “Give My Regards to Old Broadway,” and “The Gang’s All Here,” along with vaudevillian skits and groaner jokes. It’s entertaining, though some numbers come across as under-rehearsed.

There’s no real plot line in the first half, but the second half is mainly story and dialogue. There’s a dramatic, moving scene between Frankie and Johnny, winningly portrayed by Nancy Sheperd and Daniel Hernandez, which escalates into accusations and violent fights. Unfortunately, while the scene is riveting, it’s plopped down into what up to that moment has been a lightweight, comedy-filled talent night. In the end, the play can’t really decide what it is—a comedy or a drama—and both parts suffer because of its uncertainty.