BWW Review: Too Many Songs, But Excellence Overflows In LOVELESS TEXAS
The thunderclap of energy that opened LOVELESS TEXAS on Friday evening was enough to jolt even the most tired of businessmen awake. Almost everything about this joyful musical is first rate, from the production values to the amazing tech crew to the excellent performers who belt it out to the rafters. Who cares if it's the intimate black box theatre at the Sheen Center? These seasoned Broadway troopers put on a barnyard raising show with unflagging energy for over two and half hours, proving that everything is truly bigger when it comes to Texas. And quite frankly it is exhausting.
Far be it for anyone to complain about too much of a good thing, but when that good thing comes outfitted in a collection of country rockabilly pop songs that don't know when to quit, sooner or later you find yourself thinking, "Why are they still singing?" Plain and simple, there are too many songs - 11 in the first act alone - and Henry Aronson's tuneful score only rarely advances the plot. Instead, it makes its point with pop-tart ditties that belong on the radio, repeating their "hooks" without proper buttons. Most shows need a dramaturge; LOVELESS TEXAS needs a pair of scissors to trim the fat.
Even with the excess, the performers - all members of Boomerang Theatre Company - are something special. In a story about growing up and falling in love - a mild adaptation of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost - every single cast member demonstrates organic transformation even when the material doesn't quite support the change. Of particular note is Trisha Jeffrey, a marvelous actress who steals focus and responds engagingly whether she is standing still or singing her heart out in a plaintive lament. Along with Darren Ritchie, she does a fabulous job of performing on the breath and making sense of her songs even when there is not much sense to be made. As the juvenile leads, Amanda Lea LaVerne - she of the Broadway belt that could smash the Rocky Mountains - and Joe Joseph - a fabulously over the top musical comedy phenom - are equally wonderful. Both embrace the ridiculous aspects of their parts and do an incredible job of convincing the audience that bursting into song is the most natural thing in the world. Extra kudos to Joseph for his spontaneity and finding a way to make surprise look heartbreakingly surprising.
Not every one gets off quite so easily with that. The random song intros certainly do not help. Case in point: upon learning that her father has died, one character says "Daddy?" and proceeds to belt her face off. This "stand front and sing out" delivery put one in mind of the Leiber & Stoller revue SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE. The gold standard for introducing a song in musical theatre is the iconic bench scene from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical CAROUSEL. Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan are falling in love with each other. Beneath their dialogue is a propulsive underscoring that supports them when the moment becomes too much, leaving them with no other mode for expression but song. In LOVELESS TEXAS, these people are constantly and inappropriately breaking out into song over the most trifling of occasions. The end result is actors wailing as passionately about technical terms in a contract as they do about the love of their life. It doesn't work.
This production hovers on the edge of greatness by virtue of its marvelous production values and performances. Though the "choreography" - except the wonderful wedding scene - is quite bad, Cailín Heffernan's direction is solid and even makes sense of the sillier plot points. It is a traditional musical comedy after all, and being silly is to be expected, but if this show wants to fly, it needs to pare down on the interminable singing and focus on the songs that really matter. In other words: "Please Don't Play the Music" unless it is integral to the show.
LOVELESS TEXAS continues at the Sheen Center through September 24th, 2017.
music & lyrics by Henry Aronson || book and direction Cailín Heffernan
set by Evan Hill || projections by David Palmer || costumes by Cheryl McCarron
The cast features: Colin Barkell, Brett Benowitz, CJ Eldred, John Herrera, Kimberly JaJuan, Trisha Jeffrey, Joe Joseph, Chase Kamata, Amanda Lea LaVergne, Annette Navarro, Darren Ritchie, and Bligh Voth
Photo Credit: Yadin Photography