“King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story,” effective bioplay
Jesse Johnson and Trevor Wheetman / Ed Krieger

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif.—It’s always sad to learn when the joy that a famous figure you’ve idolized has given you—like comedian John Belushi, for example—eludes them. When I was a little boy, like millions of my fellow Americans, I fell in love with Roger Miller’s 1965 song “King of the Road.” This hobo ode, paying homage to the open road and a freewheeling lifestyle unrestrained by responsibilities, became one of my favorite hits. In fact, I grew into quite the world traveler, if not exactly a denizen of boxcars, like the chartbuster’s broom pushin’, train hoppin’ vagabond.

King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story tells the behind-the-scenes saga of the real life singer/songwriter, who wasn’t anywhere near so carefree as the eponymous gallivanter in his most famous number. Co-written by Miller’s third (and final) wife, Mary Arnold Miller, Road’s book reveals Roger’s trials and tribulations growing up, like Woody Guthrie before him, dirt poor in Oklahoma, where he was “abandoned” by his mother and attended a one-room schoolhouse with American Indian classmates.

By sheer dint of his talent and determination Miller escaped from rural Oklahoma and made something of himself. He became the songwriter’s songwriter, the lyricist who cracked the conundrum of what to rhyme with “orange” (“door hinge,” but of course!) and who’d win Tonys by setting Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to music for the Broadway musical Big River—surely, the country boy who wrote “King of the Road” could relate to that Missouri scamp who rode the Mississippi atop a raft in American literature’s greatest odyssey.

By the time he was 28, Roger’s novelty songs, full of good ol’ boy wisecracking wit and sounds, had earned six Grammys—and that was before his big hit. After “King of the Road” was released in 1965 Miller starred in a 1966 network TV variety series on NBC. But Miller couldn’t get away from his troubled childhood or personal baggage: His inner demons pursued him and along with them, alcohol, substance abuse and chain smoking. Despite stardom, the happiness Roger sought evaded him, although he could turn on the charm, his million-dollar smile and folksy persona at the drop of a cowboy hat.

This essentially is the plot of Act I, although it is told in an imaginative way that includes flashbacks, a dramatization of what may have been a bipolar personality, and externalization of an interior monologue between conflicted sides of the same psyche. The play opens with the adult Roger (Jesse Johnson) and his quartet performing (natch) “King of the Road” on his television series which, like most of his songs such as “Chug-A-Lug” and “Do Wacka Do,” I had no memory of (except for the droll “Dang Me!”). The play cinematically goes back and forth in time and place from the NBC studio in wonderful downtown Burbank, revealing the hard times Miller endured as an “Okie” during the Great Depression. In his dressing room, grownup Roger the superstar is repeatedly confronted by a younger version of himself (Braxton Baker), who also appears in flashback scenes depicting Young Roger’s earlier days.

Using different thespians to portray the same character is an effective technique for showing someone divided within his own self or at war with himself, although it’s been done before, such as in the 2014 Beach Boys biopic Love and Mercy, and currently with the stage musical Fun Home.

Act II features Roger’s redemption, once he has found the love of a good woman—the aforementioned Mary Arnold Miller (Brittney Bertier), who just so happens to have co-written the book of this world premiere with Cort Casady. Having an interested party as a co-author is a double-edged sword: They may know the inside story, including juicy details, that can enhance authenticity, but their input is likely to be stamped with a partisan point of view.

Be that as it may, Mary was a First Edition singer introduced to Roger Miller by Kenny Rogers, and she proceeds to make an honest man out of him. But it’s too late: One of Roger’s idiotic self-destructive habits pursues him to a bitter and early end. Too bad it wasn’t true when Miller sang “I ain’t got no cigarettes” in “King of the Road.”

The cast (some of whom appear in uncredited multiple roles) are good, including the four-piece band that accompanies Roger. I enjoyed Jesse Johnson’s winning charm, and his singing voice sounded to my ears like Miller’s. He convinced me that he was the adult Roger, while Baker’s Young Roger is also believable, although he doesn’t resemble the Country Western twanger many fans recall. Road is well directed by Laguna Playhouse veteran Andrew Barnicle, while Omar D. Brancato’s musical direction and Bradley Enochs’ sound design convey that distinctive Roger Miller sound, so joyfully performed by the four musicians and the delightful Johnson. All of the 19 or so songs were written by Roger, except for “This Time I’ll Cry For You,” co-penned by Mary (who attended the world premiere) and Michael Smotherman.

Despite the fact that there are so many songs (plus repeats of you-know-which Miller hit), Road is a real two-act play, not just an excuse for a tribute band concert. However, the playwriting is sometimes too on the nose, too obvious: The lengthy title is Exhibit A. Instead of developing character growth, for instance, the dialogue just states that Roger has an “epiphany” or something convenient along those lines. In this, Road commits that cardinal sin of live theatre—sometimes it tells, instead of shows. I also wish there was more about Big River—I saw an absolutely splendid Deaf West Theatre revival in L.A. that was unforgettable.

Nevertheless, this Road show is sure to please fans of Miller who seemed to express in lyrics an ethos not unlike Jack Kerouac’s in his novel On the Road. How odd that both immortalizers of the nomadic lifestyle ended up the same way. A hobo’s habits die hard.

You’re likely to find delight in this bioplay about a guitar-strumming bard whose bulb burned briefly but brightly. Keep on truckin’!

King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story plays Weds. through Sat. at 7:30 pm, plus 2:00 pm on Sat., and 1:00 pm on Sun. through May 14, with additional performances on Fri., May 4 & 11 at 2:00 pm and Sun., April 30 at 5:30 pm, at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach 92651. For more info: (949) 497-2787; www.LagunaPlayhouse.com.

Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Esther Shub’s documentary The Fall of the Romanovs on Fri., April 28 at 7:30 pm at the L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, Los Angeles 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through October. For info: laworkersedsoc@gmail.com.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.