The curtain call for “Lone Star Love,” the musical debuting at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater prior to its planned but subsequently aborted December opening on Broadway, is a foot-stomping, skirt-swinging, fiddle-sawing Texas hoedown. It’s a moment of pure fun and entertainment at the end of a show that sometimes seems to have mixed intentions. Does it want to celebrate down-home, cowboy culture? Or make fun of it? Perhaps both — but the musical hasn’t yet found the proper balance between the two.
Following its tepid reception in Seattle, the decision was announced Sept. 24 to abandon New York plans, leaving the show’s future uncertain. No official reason for the forfeit was given.
The confusion in the material may be understandable, considering “Lone Star Love’s” convoluted pedigree. Writer John L. Haber first transported Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” to Texas in the 1970s, in a non-musical version staged in North Carolina. In the late ‘80s, Haber teamed with Red Clay Rambler Jack Herrick to create a musical version — “The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas” — at Houston’s Alley Theater. Further adjusted and retitled “Lone Star Love,” the show had an Off Broadway run in 2004. Current version was written by Haber and Robert Horn and directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner.
The central character in every incarnation has been Falstaff — here called Col. John Falstaff (Quaid). The action, familiar to any Shakespeare buff, is a series of attempted seductions, double-crossings and comeuppances involving concealed identities. It’s a bunch of folderol in other words, and therefore not easy to pull off, since the story lacks the forward momentum and deep characterizations of the Bard’s best work.
Quaid is an interesting choice as Falstaff. The actor has a kind of outsized presence and louche appeal that’s undeniably fun to watch. (In his delightfully silly introductory song, “Fat Man Jump,” he boogies around the stage with surprising grace.) But he seems to be performing in a vacuum. His sidekicks are played by three members of the onstage band (including Herrick) — terrific musicians, but not the kind of actors who can feed energy back to a loose, spontaneous performer like Quaid.
The rest of the cast (led by the able Robert Cuccioli, Lauren Kennedy, Dan Sharkey, Dee Hoty) seem to exist in another, more traditional musical-theater world; they’re breathing the air of one planet, and Quaid’s eating air on another. They just don’t seem to mesh.
The show is filled with cowboy kitsch: yodelin’ and ropin’ and square-dancin’ — even campy silent-movie footage of doggies stampedin’ — all executed expertly. Clarke Thorell is plumb charming as a yodeling cowboy, and Chad Seib, Ryan Murray and Miguel A. Romero are a hoot as a trio of dancing ranch hands.
But the moments that are most affecting are sincere, not spoofy. Thorell, again, and ingenue Kara Lindsay share a heartfelt duet expressing love at first sight (“Prairie Moon”) and Falstaff’s musician pals rip into a bluesy a cappella number (“Hard Times”) that hits its emotional mark.
The show’s many distractions include anachronistic jokes (a jab at George Bush got a huge laugh on opening night, but it doesn’t help move the story forward) and several incidental scenes that tend to stall (for example “Code of the West,” a full-company song that leads into a comic duel).
One is left wondering whether this is a show that wants a smaller frame and a leaner production, rather than the bigger one the Rialto would afford. After all, “Lone Star Love” isn’t about spectacle. The setting — a large, wooden, barn-like structure — is fairly static, and there are few costume changes or theatrical effects.
What it has working in its favor is an original, well-performed, rootsy score and a quirky sense of humor, both of which might work best in an intimate setting. Whether those attributes can survive a somewhere grander lodging — on Broadway or elsewhere — remains to be seen.