Rowdy and Touching
A rare run of Harvey Schimdt and Tom Jones' last musical, directed by Dale Gutzman.
At face value, Roadside is a big, dumb, happy good time of a show. But if you squint a bit, this late, obscure effort by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (of Fantasticks fame) can become oddly truthful and touching.
Off the Wall Theatre opened the 2001 show, after a play by Lynn Riggs, Thursday (May 24) in its tiny space at 127 E. Wells St. Dale Gutzman directed.
The conceit of the musical puts us in the audience of Uncle Billy’s Traveling Family Wild West Show, circa — when? 1890? We see a little of the actors “getting ready” to put on their show, Roadside; so they establish a layered reality at the outset. Even when the actors play actors, they’re pretty theatrical and broad. When the show proper begins, they ham it up to burlesque proportions.
David Flores presides over it all, as Uncle Billy Barlow and then as Pap, a wandering rogue with a lovely, ornery daughter, Hannie. That would be Sharon Rise, who also plays the company’s Leading Lady. Before the (second) show begins, she complains that she’s getting too old to play 19-year-olds and has had it with her philandering Leading Man. That would be Robert Hirschi, who plays Texas, a wild old cowboy in the play within the play. The set-up sounds a little complicated on paper, but it’s easy to sort out in the theater.
If commedia dell’arte had grown up in the Wild West instead of medieval Europe, it would look like Roadside. In addition to the padrone and romantic leads, the show features a clueless comic farmer, Buzzy, for whom Jeremy C. Welter abandons every last shred of dignity in pursuit of every last laugh. That is, he was perfect. Then we have a Character Actor/Lawman in Tairre Christopherson, Female Comic/Pious Townsperson in Kristin Pagenkopf, and a fat-and-skinny pair of comic moron bumpkins in Kurtis Witzlsteiner and Glen Quarrie, and an all-purpose comic in Thomas Welcenbach. Sandy Lewis distributed popcorn in the house then dashed on stage as a chorister when needed. They throw themselves into the piece, singing maybe not so prettily all the time but with a cheerful energy that wins the day and fits the material. Pianist/music director Donna Kummer had great command of the score and interacted smartly with the cast. Jay Kummer (guitar, banjo, mandolin) and Jacob Sudbrink (fiddle, mandolin, percussion) played very well.
In addition to all the burlesque and layering, everyone has a great deal of singing to do. Schmidt and Jones threw a wacky range of musical styles into the mix. Their original songs sound like cowboy songs, minstrel tunes, torch songs and country rock in the way of, say, Wanda Jackson. Rise was a ball of fire in these numbers, and so was Hirschi, when he made duets of them.
Schmidt and Jones changed the pace and added a few touching ballads, too, rather in the way of the Fantastick’s Soon It’s Gonna Rain. Hirschi had the best of these, Another Drunken Cowboy. Doubt overcomes Texas’ bravado in this private moment, and Hirschi lets a little of the Leading Man’s self-doubt leak into it.
The play remains pretty rowdy, but that song changes the play. It becomes about something, namely the closing of the Wild West and the end of it as a place for misfits to wander endlessly. With the melodrama resolved, the show ends with the characters resolved to find new ways to be misfits in a new West. And when Flores, now once again as Uncle Billy, says “That’s our show, don’t you wish you were us?” he widens the circle. The players, the characters, even the real Milwaukee actors who emerged smiling from backstage after the house lights came up — happy misfits all. Show people usually are.
Roadside runs at the Off the Wall Theatre, 127 E. Wells St., through June 3. Most shows begin at 7:30 p.m., excepting 4:30 p.m. Sunday matinees. Tickets are $24.50 or $27.50 for reserved seats; call (414) 327-3552 or visit Off the Wall’s website.