Review: COWBOY BOB takes her last stand at the Alley until March 26th!

Don't miss your chance to catch the world premiere musical!

By: Mar. 20, 2023
Review: COWBOY BOB takes her last stand at the Alley until March 26th!
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COWBOY BOB closes after this week at The Alley Theatre, but audiences still have through March 26th to catch the infamous new musical downtown. It is a world premiere, so Houston attendees are among the first to see this production that aims to go onto bigger and better things after seven years of development. Of course what could be bigger or better than a Texas tall tale with a soaring collection of songs in the intimacy of the Alley's Hubbard Theatre? Adding to that is an electric performance from Jackie Burns (the woman who starred as Elpheba in Wicked the longest on Broadway) and a solid ensemble surrounding her. This is a "shouldn't miss" chance to see something folks just don't get very often to witness. Rare enough to have a female bank robber, but also one that can belt better than anyone else on Broadway?


What I admire about The Alley Theatre is their commitment to bringing and debuting new shows here in Houston. Whether it was Linda Eder in 1990's JEKYLL AND HYDE or last year's debut of NOIR, the Alley gives us a chance to see something "in development" quite regularly. Most resident companies trot out classics they know can sell, and only every now and then offer up anything new or unproven. Cheers to the Alley for helping to create innovative new theatrical experiences like this one. It's something that Houston is all the better for, and cowboy hats off to them for doing it.

COWBOY BOB is a uniquely Texas play, because it is based on the real life story of Peggy Jo Tallas. Peggy was an infamous bank robber who was profiled in Texas Monthly. By all accounts Peggy was a shy, unassuming figure, but surprisingly an adept career criminal who went down in flames during a final face-off with the police around her RV. If you get a chance, The Texas Monthly account of her crimes is a fascinating read (the link is - https://www.texasmonthly.com/true-crime/the-last-ride-of-cowboy-bob/ ). Peggy's truth is stranger than any fiction, and it isn't surprising a stage version of her life would emerge eventually.

This musical was created by Galveston resident Molly Beach Murphy (book and additional lyrics), Jeanna Phillips (music and lyrics), and Annie Tippe (director and choreographer). COWBOY BOB has amazingly aching and beautiful songs in it, and the score is where the show comes alive. Jackie Burns playing Peggy Jo Tallas is brilliant casting, as she soars through the country influenced pieces of music with an easy grace. Ashley Perez Flanagan matches Jackie as the put-upon waitress at a popular chain restaurant who can sing out with the best of them. Whenever these two solo or duet it's like watching something magic happen in front of you. In the ensemble Susan Koozin, Jamila Sabares Klemm, Julia Krohn and Nathaniel Tenebaum all turn in spectacular turns with their songs as well. You probably won't hear better musical performances anywhere in Houston theater. This is already Broadway level delivery in the music department.

If there is a challenge for COWBOY BOB, it's that the book of the musical just isn't as interesting as the "true story" it is based on. The opening moments give away Peggy's fate, and the closing moments don't quite do the real woman the justice she deserves. Where is the dramatic turn with Peggy waving a toy pistol asking to not be taken alive? The narrative tries to weave in the tale of two women - Peggy the bank robber and Rena the waitress. The point is to critique the American dream and to sharply point to how women are regarded in the workplace and in society. It's all very deep and moving, but it's not the raucous "Bonnie without Clyde" story that it promises it could be. It just isn't as much fun as the source material suggests. The play also meanders down unnecessary side streets far too often. During the climax it even takes a break to play a round of JEOPARDY which is a head-scratcher that breaks any momentum. I am not sure I want to see a police face-off interrupted by a trivia contest.

But at the end of the day despite any narrative difficulties, COWBOY BOB is still something to see. It's a celebration of what a daring musical should feel like. It asks tough questions, it presents us with gorgeous ballads, and it shows off truly Texan stage design that feels authentic. Like the real life Peggy Tallas, it's a brave piece that moves in bold directions. I feel like I can get behind that, and appreciate the work for where it excels. Hopefully if COWBOY BOB does continue on her journey, it will find a way to tighten up the book. But please, don't lose any of those gorgeous duets or soaring solos. And you might want to keep Jackie Burns and Ashley Perez Flanagan around too.

COWBOY BOB runs at The Alley Theatre through March 26th. Photo is provided courtesy of Lynn Lane.




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