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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A few seasons ago we re-visited The Fantasticks by lyricist Tom Jones & composer Harvey Schmidt to see if it still retained its fresh charm forty years it became as forever a fixture on Sullivan Street as the forever together marriage of Agnes and Michael in I Do, I Do (also by Jones & Schmidt). But time and real estate problems have put a finite date -- January 13, 2002 -- on the show's long tenure in its Off-Broadway home.
To offset the sadness of the departure of the The Fantasticks, the York Theatre Company is presenting the New York premiere of a musical Jones and Schmidt were working on even before that fantastically successful little musical -- a show celebrating the humor and spirit of the old west of the early 1900s. Roadside is an expansion of the long sidelined idea. Like The Fantasticks, it's based on a play, this one by Lynn Riggs who also penned Green Grow the Lilacs which seeded Oklahoma.
Like everything Jones and Schmidt do, Roadside is sweet but not saccarine, hokey but with the portion of corn kept palatable and ideally suited to unfussy production values and a cast without big box office names. The plot, a folk tale right out of the American West, is as predictable as the menu at a church supper: Pap Raider (G.W. Bailey) and his ripe-for-love-and-marriage daughter Hannie (Julie Johnson) are itinerants, taking their tent show through the Oklahoma Territory during the early 1900s. Buzzey (James Hindman) tries to woo Hannie into settling down with him on his farm but Hannie yearns for someone less clownish and more romantic. That someone turns out to be Texas (Jonathan Beck Reed), a swaggering, gun-toting, hard-drinking cowboy, who like her refuses to settle (as smartly summed up in "I Toe the Line"). To round things out Pap's retinue includes two not too bright young cousins, Red Ike (Ryan Appleby) and Black Ike (Steve Barcus). The town is embodied in a threesome consisting of the town marshall (William Ryall) who is out to corral Texas into his jail, his jailer (Tom Flagg), and the town busybody (Jennifer Allen).
The characters are archetypes encountered in countless B-Movies, but likeable and feisty, with just enough of an undercurrent of sad yearning to tap into our own nostalgia for connections that seem to have eluded us and times that can only be retained in our memories. The songs have a country-flavored Texas twang and catchy lyrics that build character and move the story forward. Some of the most likely to stick in your mind are the title song, "Smellagoody Perfume" (the stuff Hannie puts on to attract her cowboy) and that cowboy's plaintive "Another Drunken Cowboy".
Julie Johnson is the stand-out singer and big beautiful women everywhere should cheer this casting of a heroine who probably looks a lot more like a turn of the century country gal than Bernadette or Reba. Jonathan Beck Reed, is also cast against the grain, a hero with a bit of a paunch and a less than full head of sun-burnished hair. G. W. Bailey is an amusing amalgam of all the crusty old nonconformists ever seen on stage and screen, his voice as scratchy as if he'd swallowed all the dust on the roads his wagon rolled over.
Roadside is very much an ensemble show. Ryan Appleby, a handsome young redhead who originated the role of Red Ike in Texas, is a performer I would hope to see in lots more musicals. He is well paired with his stage cousin, Steve Barcus. James Hindman, who seems to have a painted on smile even when Hannie totally rejects him, comes into his own with a breakout song-and-dance number, "Personality Plus" in the second act in which he reminds one of a young Joel Grey.
James Morgan's set design which includes draping the whole theater in white tent cloth is simple and appropriate. Suzy Benzinger has dressed everyone to period perfection. The lighting by Mary Jo Dondlinger and orchestrations by Joseph Brent and Peter Larson are just fine. While the show as a whole is hobbled by some too broad moments, it has enough going for it to warrant at least several extra weeks at the York Theatre, and a long life on the regional theater circuit.
In keeping with the tent show flavor, there's a popcorn wagon in the lobby (a dollar a bag with a chance for a prize). This was my second encounter with popcorn in a theater in two days. But whereas the popcorn at True Love ( CurtainUp review) is part of a contemporary grunge atmosphere that can hardly be recommended as family entertainment, Roadside is all in the spirit of good clean fun for the whole family.
Be sure to check out the exhibit detailing the long and diverse career of Lynn Riggs in the lobby. You might also want to check out these CurtainUp reviews of other Jones & Schmidt shows:
I Do, I Do
The Show Goes On
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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