Thanks to ‘King of the Road,’ it’s Miller Time in Laguna

No question that Roger Miller was one of the most singular talents ever to hit the pop charts, a quirky singer-songwriter with a wisecracking, self-deprecating persona and a musical style steeped in bluegrass.

Making heads or tails of his life in a musical stage bio must have been a challenge for Miller’s wife, Mary Arnold Miller, but also a labor of love – yet, in its world premiere at Laguna Playhouse, “King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story” emerges with the same ease and fluidity as any of Miller’s hit songs.

That’s a clear testament to the script, co-written with Cort Casady; director Andrew Barnicle’s adroit staging; and eight extraordinary performers: four filling the play’s dozens of speaking roles, four on-stage musicians (including musical director Omar D. Brancato).

Roger Miller was king of a road traveled only by him and no one else before or since. His amazing life was almost not to be believed, and his story plus his music yield an unvarnished look at fame, celebrity, wealth, talent, luck and circumstance.

In the first few scenes, Miller (Jesse Johnson, in a remarkable portrayal) reels off tidbits about himself to the live and home audiences of “The Roger Miller Show,” a half-hour weekly NBC variety series that aired in fall 1966. It’s an effective, and arresting, way for this show to get rolling.

Back in his dressing room, Miller is confronted by his younger self (played with appealing sincerity by Braxton Baker), who mercilessly hammers him about his self-destructive nature. These self-to-self meetings become a running device that allow us to gauge whether Miller will ever wake up to reality.

He eventually does, and cleans up his act – but as grim irony (and a lifetime of smoking) would have it, it’s too little, too late.

It also quickly becomes clear to us that Miller used humor to deal with his early hardscrabble life and the scars it left. Crushing poverty forced him away from music and into work he disliked, and by the time fame arrived, the psychological damage had been done.

By contrast, Miller’s earliest hits – including “Dang Me,” “Do-Wacka-Do” and “Chug-a-Lug” – were whimsical, lighthearted, feel-good songs that topped the pop and country charts and snagged multiple Grammy Awards in the mid-’60s.

Featuring a raft of Miller’s endearing songs, entertainingly rendered by the onstage band, the episodic play moves back and forth in time, from Miller’s boyhood in rural Oklahoma to the peaks and valleys of his musical career.

There’s something comforting about seeing someone handle his humble origins so forthrightly, but just as we’ve decided the twin blessings of wealth and fame have had no adverse effect on Miller, we learn of his growing addiction to pills. That, and his raging egomania, were well hidden from the public.

“King of the Road” also traces the musical distances Miller traveled: Written for the 1985 Broadway musical “Big River,” his profound song “River in the Rain” was a quantum leap beyond his jokey early hits (and Miller’s score for that show earned a Tony Award).

With his West South Central (Oklahoma-Texas) dialect and relaxed and amiable backwoods manner, Johnson looks and sounds like Miller, delivering a vocal style and solid guitar-playing to match.

As Young Roger, Baker relates the harsh facts of Miller’s life with a smile on his face and no traces of bitterness or self-pity, winning our admiration, and he indeed looks like a raw, more youthful, less polished version of Johnson’s Miller – unsullied, yet by no means naïve.

Lindsey Alley and Brittney Bertier fill the script’s numerous and strikingly diverse female roles – a collection of wives, cousins, backup singers, reporters and more – yet are billed only as Woman #1 and Woman #2. Suffice it to say that their protean skills are insanely impressive, all the more so for appearing so effortless.

Miller’s life takes a huge turn for the better when pal Kenny Rogers introduces him to one of his singers from The First Edition, Mary Arnold (a wonderfully unaffected Bertier). Unfamiliar with his songs and not hip to his sense of humor, she nonetheless becomes his third wife and the love of his life.

Mary Arnold Miller also saw him lose his battle with lung cancer, became guardian of all things Roger Miller and, with Casady, wrote this musical theater tribute to Miller’s life and music. The show is a fitting legacy to a man many only know for the songs “King of the Road” and “Dang Me” but who most will discover, until seeing it, they barely knew at all.