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LIGHTNING REVIEW: Pull on your boots and fall for 'Autumn at the Opry'

 'Autumn at the Opry' stars Katie Barton, Nat Zegree, Eric Anthony, Ben Hope, Paul Babelay (on drums), Lauren Wright, Russ Wever and Jeremy Sevelovitz. [FLAT ROCK PLAYHOUSE PHOTO] 'Autumn at the Opry' stars Katie Barton, Nat Zegree, Eric Anthony, Ben Hope, Paul Babelay (on drums), Lauren Wright, Russ Wever and Jeremy Sevelovitz. [FLAT ROCK PLAYHOUSE PHOTO]

Mid-October at the Flat Rock Playhouse usually feels different than Friday night felt.

Back in the day — pre-Covid — a fall show at the Playhouse might be a single-set murder mystery or a light comedy with a small cast. The curtain has dropped on the big summer musicals where the apprentice corps filled out the ensemble cast. The sun sets before the show opens. It’s wind-down time.
In the pandemic version of fall, on Friday night, parking guides greeted patrons with a question before they directed them around the island of trees: Do you have your proof of vaccination? Here was the new way of staging live theater.
Inside, Lisa K. Bryant, the director of the Playhouse, welcomed the crowd.
“These folks have also had their lives uprooted these last 572 days,” she said. “To bring all these amazing talents and all these amazing friends back onto the stage to dazzle you and entertain you is just a win-win.”
Here's reason No. 981 to get the vaccine: We can go back to live theater.
“Laugh, sing, clap, boogie,” Bryant told us. “Honestly, you’re going to have a splendid time.”
And with that, eight gifted performers kicked off “Autumn at the Opry” and let us know with boot-stomping joy that they were  “Back in the Saddle Again” and “On the Road Again.”
Directed by Bryant and starring Eric Anthony, Paul Babelay, Katie Barton, Ben Hope, Jeremy Sevelovitz, Lauren Wright, Russ Wever and Nat Zegree, the show alternately strolls, waltzes and sprints through the history of country music — from gospel roots to the earliest days of the Grand Ole Opry to “countrypolitan” to the mega-artists of the "Urban Cowboy" era.
“Love Bug,” the George Jones tune that opened the show, “is appropriate as it is about an infectious disease,” Hope cracked.
 DX 8110Katie Barton performs in 'Autumn at the Opry' at the Flat Rock Playhouse.It was obvious, too, that Bryant and the performers had thought of how to solve the puzzle of making a live show feel intimate and warm while six feet apart — all except Hope and Barton, who are husband and wife. Bonus fun fact: The couple met on this stage as apprentices in 2005, married in 2014 and are expecting their first child.
The show is divided into five segments — celebrating happiness, country’s “blue jean” blues DNA, an up-tempo mix including Marshall Tucker’s “Can’t You See,” Pure Prairie League’s “Amie,” Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Fishin’ in the Dark,” and Brooks & Dunn’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and a movie mashup featuring “Lookin’ for Love,” “Coat Miner’s Daughter,” Eastbound and Down” and “9 to 5.”
Everyone but Babelay, fabulous on the drum set as always, and pedal steel master Russ Wever takes a turn on lead vocals. And that's no small task, given that they’re channeling the likes of Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn, Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and more.
A pyrotechnic highlight is the electrifying work on the fiddle by the diminutive Lauren Wright in the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” As Playhouse patrons have come to expect, Nat Zegree mixes zany comic flair with his nonpareil work on the piano and contributes lead singing and harmony in the bargain. Eric Anthony and Jeremy Sevelovitz are worthy rivals in hot guitar duels while all the musicians exhibit their versatility as they switch off from one string instrument to the next — acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, banjo, standup bass, electric bass.
Although they filled only about half the seats Friday night, audience members did their part, too, bouncing to their feet for multiple spontaneous ovations, including a big and appreciative one at the end that earned a rousing encore of Garth Brooks’s “Ain’t Goin’ Down (till the Sun Comes up).”
Introducing the show, Bryant had said: “These folks coming on stage right now are the best of the best and I promise you you’re going to agree with me in about 93 minutes and 42 seconds.”
Promise kept.
Get your shot. Pull on your boots. Go see this show. It’ll make you believe there is life after Covid.

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"Autumn at the Opry" runs through Oct. 31. Tickets range from $35 to $60. For tickets call the box office at 828.693.0731 or visit www.flatrockplayhouse.org.