Cowboys Don't Sing: A Western Musical
nytheatre.com review by Olivia Jane Smith
August 15, 2013
A scene from Cowboys Don't Sing: A Western Musical
What's in store at a musical in which the title boasts an inability--or at least an unwillingness--to sing? There's only one real cowboy in Cowboys Don't Sing, which is showing as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, and true to the title, much of the plot hinges on his refusal to give voice to so much as a note (though not for the reasons you might expect).
Written as a love letter to the Western, according to an endearing program note by writer and director Dennis Flynn, the show manages to encapsulate the essentials of this genre, which exerts such an enduring pull on America's collective imagination: the promise of the new, the tension between individuality and community, fear of outsiders (including Native Americans, foreigners, and even women, and the threat they represent to men's freedom to roam), and the strong-silent-type hero who rides into the sunset, keeping the West safe from outlaws even as he pushes the boundaries of the law himself.
If that makes Cowboys Don't Sing sound serious, it's actually quite the reverse. Flynn sneaks in these larger themes amid a lot of singing and dancing--not an obvious fit with the Western, but that's the point--plus a lot of silly puns, and some almost-too-cute meta-theatrical pranks, such as the show's "intermission" (which I won't give away here). It took a bit of reflection after the fact to realize that the show has anything other than over-the-top comedy on its mind.
The rollicking opening number takes place aboard a train, where we meet ingenue Alice (Megan Beatty), who is heading out west to Tombstone Junction, where her grandfather is sheriff (played by Matt Van Orden). On the same car with her is the bookish Max (Jeffrey Sharkey), who is brining education to the frontier. The song's title is "In the West (It's the Best!)." (The music is by Johnny Kelley, while T.J. Acala, who also plays the Cowboy, is credited with the score.) That during this paean to boundless optimism, the train is robbed and nearly everyone else killed, gives you a sense of the show's often black humor. When Alice and Max arrive in their destination, a "singing town," they find that the custom is to sing a rah-rah celebratory verse whenever an outlaw is killed, which happens often, seemingly in just about every scene.
Around the same time that Max and Alice arrive in town, a stranger in a hat rides up on his horse, Shadow (played by Tim Rozmus). After proving his mettle by shooting down a long-wanted outlaw, our Cowboy teams up with the Sheriff and earns the affections of Alice, much to the chagrin of the Deputy (Matthew Burns). There are confrontations with the Black Rock Gang, including Cooper (Justin Clark) and ringleader Ruby (Nora Geraghty), but it appears someone is in league with them. When the Cowboy won't break into song along with the townsfolk, he's banished. Will he be able to return and win back their trust in time to save Tombstone Junction? Will his ramblin' heart find a place to call home, in the arms of Alice?
While Cowboys Don't Sing feels like a college show (though a particularly creative and original one), which it was, at Fordham University last year, what it lacks in polish is balanced somewhat by its boundless enthusiasm. I was impressed by Flynn's direction, which kept the staging varied and used every inch of playing area. Particularly charming was the number "Dot Dash," a tap dancing ode to the telegraph. (Claire Joyce, while not formally credited in the program, is thanked for her choreography.)
Composer T.J. Alcala's physicality as the Cowboy is spot-on; from his bow-legged stance to the set of his shoulders, he managed the right blend of macho and laconic with that spark of vulnerability necessary to any good hero. He was the perfect lowkey straight man to everyone else's wholesale send-ups.
Megan Beatty as Alice is every inch the perky Disney-esque heroine. Her performance is a charming parody of a girl single-minded in her pursuit of happily-ever-after, and her singing is lovely, though it could be more forceful. And while it might be nice if Alice got the chance to transcend her coquettishness, it's in some ways refreshing to have women be the romantic aggressors. As Rosa, the play's secondary heroine and businesswoman (she tends saloon), Michelle Flowers projects strength and sass, and she gets her guy in the end. The energetic and committed ensemble is rounded out by Michael Dahlgren, Isobel "Izzy" Menard,Terrence Petersen, Steve Tyson, and Pam Zazzarino.
The music--rendered by an off-stage band of Cashel Barnett on drums, Joe Farrell on bass, Stephen Federowicz on piano, and Steven Scarola on guitar--while not especially memorable, is upbeat and a solid effort for fledgling songwriters. The large set pieces are clunky and don't add a lot, but they're serviceable in evoking the show's frontier town setting. (Tim Lueke is credited with "Creative Design," though he seems to mostly be an illustrator.)
The show is certainly a crowd pleaser, and there were many in the audience who enjoyed its goofy sense of humor more than I did. (My favorite was a song that included about every horse pun imaginable, plus some that weren't.)