You might have thought there was enough mechanical bull on Broadway already. Apparently you’d be wrong. The producers of “Urban Cowboy” have now put an actual one centerstage at the Broadhurst Theater, where it serves as an uncomfortably apt symbol for the musical itself, which expends a whole lot of energy but never seems to go anywhere. It’s gonna be last call at this hoedown pretty darn quick.
The musical is, of course, the latest attempt to mint a new Broadway hit by re-creating a popular Hollywood picture onstage. But it has more in common with bland misfires like “Footloose” and “Saturday Night Fever” than with this season’s ebullient “Hairspray.”
Perhaps producers need to look more closely at the material itself, rather than making judgments based on box office figures and soundtrack sales. The listless 1980 movie is not exactly a gold-plated classic. It features an exceptionally dull-witted screenplay, adapted by Aaron Latham and director James Bridges from Latham’s headline-grabbing Esquire magazine cover story.
The subject was Texas laborers trying to assert their manhood in a hero-less era by riding a mechanical contraption to glory at a glitzed-up roadhouse called Gilley’s. The movie was enlivened only intermittently by the lush presences of John Travolta and Debra Winger, two intuitive screen actors who brought a wounded sense of soulfulness to characters written as utter dolts. Still, as Bud and Sissy, they seem to spend about half the picture pouting, the other half bickering.
Formulaic though its feuding-lovers storyline was, the movie at least had a certain funky grit to it, since it was filmed in and around the actual Gilley’s. But as soon as the curtain rises on Gilley’s at the Broadhurst, and we discover that this redneck hangout is run by a sassy but lovable black woman, Jesse (Rozz Moorhead), it’s clear we’re not in Texas proper but a slick, sanitized Broadway facsimile thereof. (I guess since Jesse is the only African-American onstage, the feeling was she’d better be given a position of importance.) James Noone’s functional but unatmospheric set is festooned with enough neon Bud signs to suggest significant promotional fees.
The central characters have been given a few more dimensions in Latham and Phillip Oesterman’s book. Bud is played by the glisteningly handsome Matt Cavenaugh, with a million-dollar smile and a body to match. He’s a boy from the sticks who moves to Houston to earn money at an oil refinery in order to buy a patch of land back home. He’s given a broken-heart backstory about a two-timing ex-girlfriend, which goes some way toward explaining the irrational developments in his love affair with Sissy.
Sissy herself is more of a chicken-fried feminist on Broadway than she was in the movie. When we first meet her, she’s itching to ditch the mop she’s been given (somewhat ludicrously) and join the boys working on the sky-high rigs. Unfortunately this more spirited Sissy, played with brash gusto by Broadway newcomer Jenn Colella, is hardly the kind of girl who’d be obsessively pining for a “real cowboy,” so her behavior grows increasingly illogical as the show plods through the contrivances of its cowboy-meets-girl, cowboy-loses-girl, cowboy-gets-girl-back story.
Colella’s Sissy seems too smart and independent-minded to rhapsodize over the trailer Bud buys for their wedding nest or, in a particularly silly plot development, to give it a good cleaning to try to win him back. These updated versions of characters more crudely drawn in the movie no longer cohere with the outmoded views of male-female relations promulgated by the plot.
And yet the musical has nothing to do but creak along the rusty grooves of track laid out by the screenplay. It dutifully does so under the smooth but faceless direction of Lonny Price. The score is a hodgepodge of extant country tunes and new ones written for the show, primarily by Jason Robert Brown, the composer of Broadway’s “Parade” and a surprising guy to be found pounding out a rockabilly riff on the keyboards and singing “That’s How Texas Was Born.”
Brown’s contributions blend smoothly with the country standards, the most famous of which are “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Lookin’ for Love” (in all the wrong places), both used in the finale. The tunes are performed with the proper twang by the lead performers, fine singers both, and work quite well in context, but they merely adorn the show; they can’t make either story or characters more compelling. And, despite the steel guitar and fiddle in the arrangements, their Nashville roots tend to be overriden by Broadway gloss.
Supporting characters are few: There’s Bud’s crusty Uncle Bob (Leo Burmester), with an ominous cough, and his tough-loving wife, Corene, Bud’s surrogate parents in Houston. As Corene, veteran Sally Mayes makes the most of her brief passages onstage, singing superbly and dishing out Corene’s down-home witticisms with comic flair. The rivals for the hearts of Bud and Sissy are, respectively, platinum rich-bitch Pam (Jodi Stevens) and long-haired, tattoed ex-con Wes, played by Marcus Chait, who tries his damnedest to be scary while singing and dancing his way across a Broadway stage.
And there’s the fake bull, of course. This creature is both bone of contention between Bud and Sissy (she wants to ride it; he, inexplicably, can’t abide the idear) and the vessel that delivers them to a happy ending when Bud triumphs over Wes in the big showdown, more nail-polishing than nail-biting. The bucking contraption swirls onstage regularly, often during the big hoedown numbers that are the evening’s liveliest moments. Melinda Roy’s choreography deftly uses the unison moves of country line-dancing to generate some excitement (there would be more if the onstage bandstand didn’t leave so little room for movement).
And the dancers are terrific, their athletic energy and steamy two-stepping far upstaging all that sexual romping on the bull. They’re a handsome bunch, too, with the women in costume designer Ellis Tillman’s camisoles and low-rise jeans, the men in matching skin-hugging denim. Indeed, between the chorus and the lithe bodies of the two stars (Cavenaugh’s oiled abs have been heavily — indeed, exclusively — featured in the show’s print ads), there’s scarcely an ounce of fat on the whole cast. Too bad the show itself is just so much lard.