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Theater review: Heaven on Wheels 

Driving up to a preview performance last Sunday of Heaven on Wheels, I expected to see the Actors Theatre parking lot crammed with tailgaters and chicken bones thick on the ground. But for the first time in months, there was parking galore outside in the lot and empty seats galore inside for the world premiere of a tuneful, informative, Carolina-style musical so soaked in motor oil and moonshine that it gives off fumes.

Hard to understand. Perhaps the new musical by Tally Sessions and Peter Holland, though it is highly deferential toward NASCAR founder Bill France and prominently mentioned on the website, is lacking the true endorsement of the Almighty France Family, which ruleth stock car racing with an iron fist. A few more kisses of the ring? Or perhaps NASCAR fans, who will camp out for days in swamps or dunes before a race, are fundamentally averse to such citified, high fallutin' places like museums and theaters -- not to mention daily newspapers, where you might find out about them.

Modeled on the Carolina template of Pump Boys and Dinettes, the fictional Heaven on Wheels is a rural roadside repair shop where true blue racing fans can stop, sit a spell, sip some home brew, and soak in a steady stream of stock car lore dating back to the prehistoric exploits of moonshine runners Curtis Turner and Junior Johnson. It's hard to imagine a musical more easygoing and welcoming to those a-feared o' culture.

At first, Heaven was a little too easygoing, and I wished Holland would pick up the tempo a little on the first two songs, especially the speed-starved "Haulin' the Moon." The whole enterprise goes overboard sucking up to the France Family when Holland, portraying the Founding Father, sings "It's All About the People." But I wasn't vomiting anymore when we flashed ahead to "Speed Monkey," celebrating Tim Flock and his penchant for racing with a pet monkey in the passenger seat, the unforgettable Jocko Flocko, and "I'm a Racin' Fan" gets us to intermission at a tempo we can believe in.

Holland has a down-home avuncular quality that's a tad overstretched when he briefly portrays King Richard Petty, but it sits comfortably when he's Bill France Sr. or Hytop, the resident historian/folklorist at Heaven on Wheels. He's surrounded by a close-knit family that's surprisingly talented and versatile. Holland's wife Christina plays Hytop's wife Arleen, but her most colorful roles are the pugnacious Louise Smith, who raced -- and wrecked -- at Daytona in 1949, and The Lady in Black, the killer temptress of "Darlington."

Portraying a racetrack to begin Act 2 is a little more absurd than portraying a monkey, but Holland certainly doesn't upstage the precocious Maya Burgess and her remarkable turn as Jocko Flocko. The 12-year-old supplies uproarious monkey percussion from the passenger seat of Tim Flock's ride, lustily flipping the bird on cue.

By the time Kyle Courter has become the goofball Tim Flock, he has indelibly stamped every move he makes in a car with his cool as Curtis Turner. What a louse -- and what a stud! Opposite him, as in Chevy man versus Ford man, is Kevin Boyd playing genius engine builder L.O. Stanley, driver Tiny Lund, and Noah Smith, Louise's forbearing husband.

Musicians lurking in the background most of the show get a brief say-so here and there. Buddy Tuttle, who co-wrote one of the songs, steps forward to testify on behalf of David Pearson, the Silver Fox, but mostly plays bass guitar. Maya's dad, Bruce Burgess, who plays guitar, two banjos, and assorted percussion, joins in the shtick for "Ba-Moo-Da," wearing tacky short as part of some weird racin' ritual. At Darlington, if memory serves.

It isn't all tall tales, hijinks, and music. Two screens flank the stage at Actor's Theatre, and they are frequently filled with photos of drivers, racetracks, illicit distilleries, or multitudes of stock cars driving insanely in circles. Film and photos accompany the narrative as Bill France creates the incredible Daytona phenomenon on a Florida beach.

If you're curious about the roots of stock car racing or mystified by its appeal, this could be the ticket. NASCAR fanatics are sure to love Heaven on Wheels, but only if they come equipped with an 8th-grade education and teeth.

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