Country music and a sense of the Wild West are common factors of life in Houston, Texas. Now, helping to bring all that into good-humored focus comes the delightful Music Box Theatre production of SALOON SONGS. After family matters had taken me away from the Big H for more than a year, it was great fun on a recent Sunday to be reacquainted with the clever troupe of players who keep the club’s laughter and fine music coming with one theme show after another. The current edition is no exception, and even overrides the production’s one major flaw: the temporary absence of co-founder, songbird Rebecca Dahl. But that flaw is forgivable as Dahl, along with her co-founder husband Brad Scarborough, had just last August become the proud parents of their first child, son Beckett. How could the lad have a name any less theatrical with two such talented parents, both of whom honed their wonderful voices during the happy years of the brilliant Masquerade Theatre musical productions at the Hobby Center?
Saloon Songs is a series of delicious musical parodies of all things western, and where better to deliver such goodies than right here in Houston? It features a great selection of country, folk and blue grass music. The scene is Honkey’s Honky-Tonk Bar, and both the set and the sketches look like they popped out of a Carol Burnett skit. Bring your laugh muscles because you’re going to need them. Our quartet of stars includes Music Box regulars, Mr. Scarborough, Cay Taylor and Luke Wrobel, and the three are joined by Kristina Sullivan, another talent well known to Masquerade audiences of years gone by. The four combine forces for a terrific opening number with a “Devil Went Down to Georgia” that had truly lush harmonies. From Georgia we move on to George — Straight that is—and a nice rendition of his hit, “Heartland,” that had no shortage of dazzling fiddling from band member, Alisa Pederson. The five-member band led by director, Glenn Sharp, was a great asset throughout the performance with the possible exception of the noisy and savage accompaniment for Kristina’s song, “Fancy” in Act II. But hey, what do I know? The friend I was with loved that number. Anyway, Kristina showed her fine voice off to great advantage with a wrenching and wonderful rendition of, “Excuse Me.” This gal is a nice addition to the Music Box family.
Miss Taylor kept this rootin’ tootin’ celebration in high gear with a sassy, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” that featured silly but cute choreography from the boys as they backed her up. The series of saloon skits that follow are silly and amusing as well, especially in the first act when the concept is freshest. With an abundance of western twangs, these barroom stereotypes and scenarios could have popped out of old Gunsmoke episodes. But as usual at the Music Box, comedy not withstanding, it is the music that reigns supreme. There could be no better example than Mr. Scarborough’s smooth, mellow and really elegant, “Desperado.” Houston is lucky this guy hasn’t left town for a national concert tour! He even offered a “Hound Dog” that would have made Elvis proud, and the group punctuated his song with a clever multi-song set of blues numbers that seemed to fit right in. Scarborough also has a knack for falsettos and yodeling and that was on full display in the song, “My Maria.”
Deep-voiced Mr. Wrobel brings plenty of comic flair to the table and sounds like he would have been a great radio actor in the days before Gunsmoke moved to television. His character of Hank is a cowboy who has had more different jobs than there are stars in the sky, and his girl friend Betty Boomerang reportedly doesn’t know if she is coming or going! But he can be serious as well, and delivers a solid and soaring, “I’m On My Way” with gentle backup from the gang. His “Sixteen Tons” would be another winner.
An interesting surprise for me was Taylor’s take on the Dolly Parton song, “Jolene.” I have always enjoyed Dolly’s work, but for some reason I never liked that song. Now I have to reassess because Taylor did it so splendidly with an a cappella opening, a great assist from the banjo, and an escalating power for the song that was sensational.
An Act II highlight was Pedersen’s fine fiddling for an “Orange Blossom Special” that even wandered playfully on to themes from Bonanza and The Flintstones. Then there was a “Ghost Riders In the Sky” that seemed a bit overworked and too cutesy for this viewer. Much more sophisticated were the counterpoints from Brad and Cay as they blended her “Walkin’ After Midnight,” with his “Your Cheatin’ Heart” in a very cleverly constructed arrangement. Let’s go one step further and say that for the most part the whole show is cleverly constructed. Put on your boots and jeans and go see for yourself.
SALOON SONGS continues at the Music Box Theater through October 26th with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and a Sunday Matinee at 2pm on October 20th. For tickets and information call (713) 522-7722 or visit the website at www.themusicboxtheater.com.