Corrections or additions?

This review by Joan Crespi was published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 10, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `Texas Flyer’

Love, loyalty, longing to leave, parental anguish,

questions for God, it’s all here as country music star Larry Gatlin

brings his new musical, "Texas Flyer," up north to Bristol

Riverside Theater for its world premiere. Loaded with original country

music by Gatlin, the show runs until Sunday, June 21. Besides being

a Grammy winner and author of numerous hit songs (he’s written over

300 songs and recorded 24 albums), Gatlin is also a film and stage

actor. The multi-talented Gatlin not only wrote "Texas Flyer"

— music, lyrics, and book — he also plays Bud Ward, the lead

character.

The cafe, a Texas version of Grand Central Station, is in a small,

depressed, out-of-the-way, town named Podunk (the name tells you

plenty).

Even "The [Texas] Flyer Don’t Fly By Here" any more, as Bud,

who lives solo above the cafe, tells us in the wrenching yet vigorous

opening number. The once-rich town is such a has-been that even the

oil derricks are being torn down. The Texas Flyer is more than a

train;

it’s a shared dream, and it once offered a way out of Podunk.

Nels Anderson has designed and dressed a set that’s just right for

an ordinary, cheerless cafe in 1959. In the background, shown first

against a liquid purple twilight sky, then against a blue night sky

and that song-inspiring Texas moon, oil derricks rise. Next to the

cafe is a ramshackle hotel.

All the players in this bright, vivacious cast perform with

professional

polish and snap, and every character who sings has an outstanding

voice. All but George (George Riddle), that is, the town drunk and

fireman — he’s meant to be funny and he is.

Gatlin plays his role to perfection. Lois Anne Sach,

who plays Lulu, has a stirring and beautiful voice, and Richard White,

as Curley, a cowboy with "Hard Working Hands," might have

stepped straight out of "Oklahoma!" Arresting, funny, and

enchanting is Trenton native Bethe B. Austin as Katie, the town

beautician

(and more) who, in tight green stretch pedal pushers and high heels,

struts around the chic new arrival, Allison Grey. Katie and Bud are

"part-time lovers, full-time friends," Katie admits. In Act

II, with both Katie and Allison reluctantly in love with Bud, Katie

says that Bud loves Allison, and with a selflessness that exists only

in male fantasy, Katie cedes Bud to Allison. A cat fight would have

been more like it.

Chic New York writer Allison Grey’s arrival in Podunk sets the plot

— one of them, at least — in motion. Driving to Texas to claim

her father’s estate, she’s stranded when her Edsel breaks down.

Clothed

with simple elegance, she’s a breed apart from the cafe denizens.

The role is played by Susan Powell (a former Miss America who now

hosts a television show). An acclaimed actress and singer, Powell

looks so fresh and unsullied here that it’s hard to believe that her

character is coming from a life of dissipation, alcohol, and cocaine.

But before Allison appears, a succession of cafe characters —

Cookie, JoAnn, Smitty, Lulu, George, and Curley — each tell of

their past or their feelings in song. And sometimes, as with Lulu’s

lovely song of longing to get out of this place, the songs seem just

teasers, not fully elaborated.

For instance, Cookie (ably played by John Henry Redwood, author of

the play, "The Old Settler," produced at McCarter) is devoted

to Bud and sings in a rich baritone that to get at Bud, "You’re

Gonna Have To Get Through Me." Aha! you think, something will

be made of his loyalty in the play. It isn’t. Similarly, JoAnn, the

waitress (convincingly portrayed by Danette Cuming) sings movingly

of her dead husband, "My Fly Boy Won’t Be Coming Home."

Something

will be made of this? No. Lulu uses her bell-pure soprano to sing

of her longing to get out of town. Will this be the plot? No. Nothing

will be made of this, either. Then Curley reveals himself in song.

And George. And Smitty. In short, too many of the minor characters

tell us of themselves in song, when they should have remained minor

characters, unsung.

There are too many plots in this musical, and even the main plot is

in fact two. First there’s the conflict between Bud Ward and his

college-bound

(he thinks) son, Guy Earl Ward, high school class valedictorian. But

Guy Earl tells his father that he doesn’t want to go to the University

of Texas and become a petroleum engineer: he wants to be in a band

and write and sing his own songs. (Just as Gatlin himself, studying

to be a lawyer, knew he wanted to be a musician.) So Bud throws his

son out of the cafe. The second plot hinges on the arrival of Allison

Grey and the love-at-first-sight between her and Bud.

Nor is it logical — and this show isn’t a fantasy — that the

newly arrived Allison Gray and Bud will fall in love so fast. They’re

so different. Further, it stretches belief that Allison, who rids

herself of her writer’s block and her addictions, is also the

instrument

that reconciles Guy Earl Ward and his father. Would you believe that

Bud also happens to have (in a refrigerator) the spare part for

Allison’s

Edsel?

There are numerous subplots: Allison’s finally abandoning a life of

alcohol and drugs, Smitty’s finding a job, Bud and Curley accepting

mortality in the beautifully harmonized song "One Helluva

Ride,"

the dying Ramsey’s plaintive question of God, "Will he take a

simple cowboy?" The final subplot is — if you can believe

it — that everybody’s going to leave town and sings joyously about

it. How are they leaving? On the Texas Flyer — the one that

doesn’t

stop here anymore.

Gatlin’s music is arresting and the lyrics stirring. Yet this is,

finally, too much of a good thing, 31 songs in all. That said, if

you look past the lack of focus, the musical is vibrant, energetic,

brilliantly produced, and entertaining. The production numbers are

sparkling, the choreography (by Sharon Halley) is well tailored to

this small stage, and the show is skillfully directed by Susan D.

Atkinson. On opening night, many in the audience rose for a standing

ovation.

— Joan Crespi

Texas Flyer, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120

Radcliffe

Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. Wednesdays through Sundays, to June

21. $30; students $12.


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