On arrival at the John Houseman Theater for “Lone Star Love,” a musical adaptation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” set in 19th century Texas, a bunch of amiable folk in period garb offer pre-show banter, as well as chili and cornbread, before the festivities proper get under way. From the get-go, this is a show that wants to be liked, with plenty of talent at its disposal to generate that feeling. There’s a fine, spirited cast, polished direction, good music and even some tasty morsels of grub: By all means, try the chili. But all the skill and Southern hospitality can’t correct the show’s fundamental misconception: The tone of story and song never fuse but work in counterpoint.
The dissonance is apparent from the start. After a merry welcome from the barbecue’s host, who lets us know the residents of Windsor, Texas, are offering this “homespun entertainment” in celebration of the 400th anniversary of “Billy Bob Shakespeare’s” play, he says the show actually begins “on a serious note.” And he means it literally. The music turns dark in a hurry with mournful tune “Carry Me Home,” as we’re taken to witness one of the last battles of the Civil War from the perspective of the Confederate losers.
The scene also provides an introduction to the rapscallion Falstaff, who avoids the battle and sings the upbeat “Cold Cash” as an announcement of his character: “Come on boys, add it up, it ain’t so complex/I want cold, cold cash/And red hot sex.”
But, to be frank, the show’s music, played by the wonderful Red Clay Ramblers (“Fool Moon”) and written by their own Jack Herrick, seems from the start more in tune with the sadness of loss and the true longing of love than with the badness and lust of John Falstaff. “Carry Me Home” is so much better than “Cold Cash” that it suggests perhaps this should have been a musicalization of “Henry V” instead.
Throughout, the most effective songs are the most poignant ones — not the Charlie Daniels-style bluegrass pieces, the tunes that pay tribute to strong women (“World of Men,” “Lone Star Love”) or the comic group harmonies that poke good-hearted fun at Texas obsessions (“Texas Cattlemen,” “Code of the West,” “Quail Bagging”) but the yearning, earnest love songs with the titles “Prairie Moon,” “The Cowboy’s Dream” and, most charming of all, the duet “Count on My Love.”
You know you’re not really in the world of “Merry Wives of Windsor” when, after Falstaff fires his band (and they literally are the band), you feel for them when they sing a capella the folksy struggle song “Hard Times.”
Jay O. Sanders makes a solid Falstaff, but the spirit of “Lone Star Love” does not belong to him. There’s likability in Michael Bogdanov’s attractive production, but not an ounce of anarchy. The most farcical scenes — and this play is the closest Shakespeare ever came to pure farce — are not funny at all, though everyone goes through the motions quite well.
This is a show that finds its best humor in its smaller moments. Every time romantic lead Fenton (Clarke Thorell) introduces himself, for example, he tips his hat and declares: “I’m Fenton. I’m a yodeling cowboy.”
He does yodel, and yodel well. So do others. But not Falstaff.