“Howdy Pardners and Little Buckaroos! I’m the fastest Marksman in the West!” our titular hero greets spectators at the start of “Bronco Billy—The Musical” (to which the ensemble also echo their praise, informing us: “Cause he’s the best—a living legend in his time!”) Inspired by the 1980 motion picture starring Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke, this high-falutin’ and even higher-spirited new musical is making its World Premiere at “The Skylight Theatre Company” in Los Angeles, California. Featuring a book by Dennis Hackin, adapted from his novel of the same name and ensuing screenplay, the music and lyrics are by Chip Rosenbloom and John Torres (with additional lyrics by Michelle Brourman.) Forget any preconceptions you may have about what a ‘western’ can be—this debut production is about as exuberant as a musical can get. With Direction by Hunter Bird, Choreography by Janet Rosten and Musical Direction by Anthony Lucca, one thing is certain: “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke” were never this entertaining–nor as downright fun!
Set in 1979, somewhere in the midst of America’s heartland, with more heart and grit than sense, “Bronco Billy McCoy”—star of his own roving “Wild West Show” struggles to keep his show (and everyone in it) alive and traveling on. “Put aside all of that fuss and come along and ride with us,” the gang we’ll come to know and love as “B.B.’s” company exhort in the unreservedly jubilant opening—sung while the flats roll in. It’s a terrifically jaunty group endeavor and fantastically sets the stage for what we’re in for! When “Billy’ and his rag-tag—but exceedingly good-natured and kindhearted–troupe of misfits meet “Antoinette Lilly”–a snooty Manhattan heiress to the “Ollie The Owl” candy-bar company, now on-the-run from her too-inept to be really homicidal husband and greedy, conniving stepmother “Constance”, the ride gets even wilder as she turns Billy’s world (and all those who occupy it) upside down. Through it all, pursuing their dreams—sometimes against (outwardly anyway,) impossible odds and facing disasters and dangers alike, ultimately—together—they succeed greater than any of them could have imagined! Hackin’s book has stratified and improved on the events of the movie considerably, making this another case of a ‘musical adaptation’ actually outshining and surpassing its source material! This stage translation is much more uplifting and buoyant than the film too, with one number routinely flowing effortlessly into the next. Rosenbloom, Torres and Brourman’s lyrics to just about every tune are, on some level, soul-stirring—comprised of plenty of quick-witted turns-of-phrase and keen-edged, witty rhyming schemes, that match perfectly to the music (which itself captures the essence of the 1970’s.)
Under his letter-perfect and agile direction, Bird and his cast and crew have concocted a big, bright, bubbly Valentine to hope-against-hope and the good old-fashioned value of having a dream. They’ve also successfully reminded us that going to the theater can be more kicks than a Hootenanny with a 100 proof ‘Still’ out back! Before the festivities get under way, members of “Billy’s” ‘troupe’ greet the audience –eventually settling in center stage. (Even the obligatory notification that patrons should turn their cell phones off is period appropriate: “We’re in 1979 when we’re in this room” we’re advised.) After intermission, Bird even makes the old theatrical staple—”the chase scene” (here played against an instrumental composition called “A Musical Showdown”,) work better and be more uproarious–prompting more authentic belly laughs–than it has in at least thirty years’ worth of previous shows! In the end, even with a standard splashy “Hollywood” finale burgeoning around them, “Billy” and “Antoinette’ realize their true prize is finding each other. (Plus, although we won’t fully give it all away here—let’s just say the moral is you don’t go messing with folks who spin ropes, crack whips, throw knives and shoot guns professionally!) Ovation Award-winning Choreographer, Janet Rosten has infused the proceedings with plenty of breezy dance phrases and abstractions, which employ an intriguing variety of disciplines in telling the story. She also shrewdly gets a few extra chuckles from the humor found in the obvious contrast of say, having a slick, glitzy–and decidedly ‘disco-fied’ ‘hoe-down’ in a honky-tonk.
In fact, that’s just what occurs right before the act break when the gang go out to celebrate at a local Country-Western bar only to behold that even there, the prevailing influence of “Studio 54” and “Saturday Night Fever” is in full swing, so they all join in for a ‘Dyn-o-mite’ dance interlude. (Admittedly, the genres which popular dances like the “Hustle” and the “Texas Two-step” belong to are disparate enough that you wouldn’t readily think about mixing them, but the show does take place in the waning “disco days” of the “Me Decade” –and Rosten’s dancers make them all work delightfully!) Immediately following, she slows things down with a lilting waltz which she orchestrates for “It’s Just A Dance”. The result is sumptuously romantic, touching all the right chords (literally and figuratively) as “Billy” and “Antoinette” at last lower their defenses enough to discover they sincerely like each other. At the show’s climax, when our intrepid heroes wind up on the Hollywood soundstage of a typical 70’s era “Variety Show”, they find themselves in the middle of an opulent and “over-blown” show-girl infused TV production number (it too, is unusual sure, but here again, they all make it work stunningly!)
Given the colossal caliber of talent evidenced herewith, it would be just as apt to label this one “Broadway Billy”! Moreover, the Production’s two leads are compatibly amazing—and play incredibly well off one another. Boasting a superior voice and an electrifying manner he expresses it with, Eric B. Anthony stars in the eponymous role of the eternally optimistic cowpoke—the ‘head ramrod’– “Bronco Billy McCoy”. Right from the get-go, his “Billy” is engaging, enthusiastic and energetic. “Bein’ in the show is about livin’ out your dreams’ he tells one (temporary) assistant, after she asks what her renumeration will be for being shot at and having knives thrown at her. When she chooses to pass on this ‘opportunity’ he is perplexed until “Doc”—his oldest and most trusted friend (not to mention being the show’s “Mistress of Ceremonies”) chides him “this is a Cowboy’s dream!” “Did you forget how all of this began?” he next croons to his muttering company once they learn their in-take from this latest town was (again) much less than hoped for. Magnetic would also be the word to describe his leading “It’s Gonna Be Great” as he persuades “Miss Lilly” (the name under which she’s going incognito) to join his troupe as his new “Assistant”: “The work can be grueling but magical as well” the gang joyfully inform her. Immediately following, his “Trust Me I’m A Cowboy” is a rip-roarin’, ‘sure as rain in April’ crowd-pleaser if ever there was one, which gets even more rollicking when the ensemble join in (making it “Trust Me, I’m A Cowboy/Cowgirl” as the case may be.) Just before the close of Act One, his dulcet “It’s Just A Dance” is also a winner performed with an engaging little gambol across the dance floor that (conceptually) deepens his budding relationship with Antoinette. In Act Two, his triumphs come fast and swiftly—major among them, “Everything I Needed”—sung with just him alone on the bare stage, verifying once more how captivating a singer he truly is!
Amanda Leigh Jerry also gives a performance to behold as “Antoinette Lilly”. Reminiscent of a young “Jessica Harper” (of “Pennies From Heaven” and “Phantom Of The Paradise” fame) in looks and with a comparably rich, full vocal timbre, her characterization is much more ‘well-rounded’ than that seen in the 1980 blockbuster. Yes, she’s a bit hard-shelled, but for this retelling, Ms. Jerry gives us numerous moments of genuine vulnerability and, eventually, even geniality. Her preliminary offering titled “I Want To Be Strong”—a song to her late father “Sam Lilly” (played by Anthony Marciona who stands beside her ‘in spirit’, bathed in ethereal blue light, singing back-up,) is-a potent benediction, effectively affording us a glimpse of the less arrogant and guarded side of this woman and more the delicate and unsure one. It’s a surprisingly touching intermezzo: “I need to know I have a purpose, ‘cause I sure don’t have a plan!” she frets. This she follows up with “Get Me Outta Here”—another powerful declaration while, seeking to ‘disappear’, she runs into “Billy” and his bunch at the service station where he’s attempting to negotiate some needed truck repairs with funds that haven’t yet materialized. “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations” he tells her (later confessing he read it on the wrapper of one of her dad’s candy-bars.) Toward the climax of the second half, her reprise (now titled “I’m Gonna Be Strong”) is passionately rendered—its lyric a masterpiece of forthrightness and determination, with an awesome ride-out in its concluding phrase that really showcases her voice (and all the glorious things she can make an audience feel with it!) As a couple, Anthony and Jerry have many charming ‘shared’ moments with which to astonish us while driving their story forward; one of the very best is “When Everything Is Real” as “Billy” smoothly croons to Ann: “When everything is real, then you don’t have to dream, “—it’s another unexpectedly touching refrain and a definite testament to Rosenbloom and Torres’ erudite songwriting. Subsequently their “What I Know” is a magnificent (and magnificently sung) duet. Mr. Anthony’s verses are clarion and robust for starters, then when Ms. Jerry joins in, it transforms into a lavish dual ‘winner’ for both performers.
Capable and compelling leads aside, this show wouldn’t be nearly as magnificent were it not for all the top-flight ‘Co-Starring’ players who captivate and enliven much of the action too. Masterful ‘reinforcement’ is supplied by Benai Boyd as “Doc”—the maternal “Ring-Mistress” of the show, who takes charge to see that everything is kept running as smoothly as possible—both before and behind the footlights. Ms. Boyd has a likeable kind of charisma and an outstanding voice to back it up, gifted as she is with an alluring ‘bluesy’ flavor to her singing. Indeed, she excels with veritably every phrase she’s been given to sing here! She validates this practically from the moment the house-lights dim with her contribution to the opening “Come Ride With Us”—a vigorous vocal venture that virtually dares your toes not to tap along! Later, her resonant vocals again jump to the forefront of “We’ve Come So Far”—aiding it to becoming a rousing and memorable way to end the act. In Act Two, her benediction “Our Time Is Now” remains another prodigious effort exhibiting the virtuosic turns-of-phrase inherent to the score, as “Doc’s” ever-calm wisdom comes into play to buck-up the flagging courage a “Billy’s” crew once a cataclysmic fire seems like it’s going to shut them down for good. Unfolding after “Billy”, (believing the cashbox was in the tent and also went up in flames,) laments “I ain’t got a penny or a prayer”. “We’ll be fine, we still got time” “Doc” assures him (and them all) with this majestic anthem to hope. (Listen to the words, the conviction and simplicity with which they’re conveyed, and don’t be startled if your outlook gets a lift too!) Michael Uribes is also a wonder as “Chief Big Eagle”—the show’s resident ‘stilt walker’. It is “The Chief” who opens Act Two with a nifty ‘rap’ intro. into “The Dreamers”, before one by one the others join in—including “Doc”, “Lefty”, “Leonard” and “Lorraine”: “Each one of us has a story to tell—of heartache and trouble and how far we fell,” they intone–detailing how each came to be a part of the show and why, despite the hardships and disappointments they all inevitably share, together, they’re far more than just a second-rate western road show, they’re part of a ‘family’, which means so much than any spotlights or applause.
As his wife, “Lorraine”, Fatima El-Bashir doesn’t simply ‘impress’—she ‘luminesces’! Trotting out a few snazzy little ‘tap interchanges’ throughout, she adds several vibrant snippets of kinetic ‘punctuation’ to the goings-on here and there, but it’s her touching solo, “Look In The Mirror” that’s categorically her moment. One of the very best inclusions the score contains, it also furnishes her with the opportunity to demonstrate how momentous a voice she can proudly proclaim as “Lorraine” reveals to “Antoinette” that she knows her ‘true’ identity’, but vows to keep the secret because she now firmly considers her one of their “family”. Well-nigh raising the roof of the “Skylight’s” auditorium, she urges her new ‘fugitive friend’ to stay her course: “Look in the mirror and believe there is no end you can’t achieve!” Rounding out the “Wild West Show” ensemble is Kyle Frattini as “Lasso” Leonard James, who brings an affable, wide-eyed boyish brand of enthusiasm to the role (He even gets to sport a ‘Davy Crocket-esque’ Racoon-skin cap for the Disco sequence!) He too, has a ‘Soulsy’/R.&B. quality of substantial depth to his voice, which he puts into the service of each of the company’s larger ‘shared’ accomplishments like “Come Ride With Us”, “We’ve Come So Far” and “Dreamers”. By his side much of the time is Randy Charleville as the boisterous, humongous-hat-wearing, smile-inducing bundle of energy, “Two Gun” ‘Lefty’ Lebow—the company’s all-around ‘good ol’ boy’ and their answer to a rodeo clown.
The trio of Crooks whom “Antoinette” is on the run from are all-and-sundry incredible, so much so that the scenes of their various—nefarious–plans going repeatedly awry (and their priceless reactions to them) make for some of the most side-splitting in the entire show. In addtion, the songs they’re given–“Gonna Get All Of My Money” and “Mama’s Done With Sweet” are individually monumental “Villain Songs”, as is the more than a little sinister “It’s Just Business”.
As “John Arlington”, “Antoinette’s” free-loading, none-too-bright and fast-fading ‘pretty-boi’ of a husband, Chris M. Kauffman offers admirable support and even proves notable in a smaller role that in lesser hands could be otherwise overlooked. Instead, he perceptively gives us hints to this man’s grasping money-grubbing background with every diabolical sentence he utters. It is he who, at the outset, plans to serve his churlish, over-privileged wife a ‘Murder-tini’ as the mode of ‘doing her in’. When she catches on to his flimsy plan though, that’s when the game really takes off—to her disconcertment and our exhilaration. Pat Towne is also a hoot-and-a-holler as the sleazy detective/hit man “Antoinette’s” stepmom hires to flush her out–“Sinclair St. Clair” (–a name everyone somehow gets wrong, much to his consternation.) A man with delusions of grandeur and an exaggerated (and mostly misguided) sense of his own ‘Savoir Faire”, the trouble is, he’s like a frustrated sharp-shooter who keeps missing his target! This leads to plenty of huge laughs, starting with his introductory Act One descant, “It’s Just Business”–a strut set to the peculiar cadence of a cowbell as he gloatingly informs us exactly how low he’ll go for the right price (–and it keeps getting higher and higher by the verse!) He even sinks into the floor at the songs end—further underscoring what a slug of a person he is! However, it’s Michelle Azar who is nothing short of dazzling (literally—given all the silk and lamé she wears,) as ‘Ann’s’ pint-sized, Harpy-in-‘Halston’, Elizabeth Taylor wannabe of a stepmother, “Constance”! An Over-The-Hill “Gold Digger” with a vicious streak wider than the Rio Grande, at one point she observes: “It’s people like me that wealth was made for!” Aided and abetted by her stepson-in-law, and her Lawyer “Lipton” (played by Marc Cardiff), this terrible triad formulate a plan to ensure that the girl is soon out of the picture during her initial chanson, “Gonna Get All Of My Money” (even labeling their plot “Plan A—for ‘Antoinette”!) “Ka-Ching!” they gloat at the number’s conclusion. In the second act, again joined by her ‘lackey’s” “Lipton” and “Sinclair St. Clair”, her “Mama’s Done With Sweet” is an equally A-Plus “Bad Gal” number accentuated by a driving faux ‘disco’ beat—one which Ms. Azar thrillingly makes the most of! “It’s like taking candy bars from a baby” she shamelessly coos over their next supposedly ‘can’t-miss’ scheme.
John Iacovelli’s set designs make inventive use of the expansive performance-space at “The Skylight”, with the blue-grass band (under the direction of Anthony Lucca, who also serves triple-duty as Musical Director and Keyboardist,) situated towards the rear at stage right. The ‘nuts and bolts’ style of the existing auditorium perfectly suits the show’s comprehensive ambience and story brilliantly, while the physical ‘set’ consists of series of wooden packing crates (fitting for a traveling show) each suitably marked “Bronco Billy”, with paint-spattered tarps thrown in for atmosphere (—and all under a looming ‘light-up’ show-banner similarly bearing our hero’s name.) Brian Gale’s Lighting Designs are also both artistic and particularly efficacious in recalling the very distinct times and places our tale plays out in. His clever and frequent use of multi-colored ‘dancing lights’ elevate the general mood of the proceeding–first for the “Disco” interval, then again in the finale where he’s pristinely lit the finale at the TV Station to knowingly reference all of those ‘closing extravaganzas’ that weekly took-over our TV screens gratis such variety programs like “Sonny And Cher”, “The Flip Wilson Show”, “Donny And Marie”, and even “The Hudson Brother’s Comedy Hour”. Conversely, when a more intimate element is called for, his stark simplicity of white lights and longer shadows also make their point as strikingly. Augmenting Gale’s work are David Murakami’s snazzy Projections, which allow for the illusion of forward motion of a stationary “truck” (complete with turning wheels) and a mind-blowing mass of all-consuming flames, over and above numerous other motion effects and ‘scenic enhancements’ (hence making an already sizable show appear to be even more voluminous!) Add to them, the wigs and costume designs by Ann Closs-Farley favor a more “Urban Cowboy” Meets “Knott’s Berry Farm’s Wild West Stunt Show” circa 1977-80. Expect to see lots and lots of plaid flannel, while also spotted here in copious amounts are Cowhide Chaps, Toy-Store Stetsons, and loads of other “Cowboy & Indian” themed childhood accoutrements you’d expect to find in an average K-Mart back ‘in the day’. Even then, she’s devised several looks that also ‘standout’ in their own right, like Constance’s’ skin-tight shiny red and silver gown with matching ropes of ‘diamonds’, or “John’s” Black and White “Sing-Sing Prison Chic” outfit (Not only is it pretty hilarious, it’s absolutely fitting!) All of these are complimented by plenty of wigs in homage to that ‘bushy’ 1970’s “Hair trend”. Not to be overlooked either are all the members of that fore-mentioned nine-piece on-stage band, who are without exception out-and-out phenomenal, melodically conferring their share of merriment and excitement to the overall happenings. The production also uses several other more ‘singular’ trappings to help achieve their objective of conjuring up a little more in the way of stage ‘magic’, mainly thanks to the auspices of Prop-Master Kevin Williams. These include ‘theatrical haze”, stage ‘weaponry’, strobe effects’, trick roping—and even a little walking on stilts! It all pays off splendidly though, with the net outcome being tremendous audience enjoyment!
Paint this one standing-ovation worthy and then some, so “kick up your spurs and have some fun” (–this is emphatically the show to do it with!) After Previewing from May 10th-May 17th, “Bronco Billy” officially started its run on Saturday, May 18th where it is slated to play through Sunday, June 30th, 2019 at “The Skylight Theatre Company” located at: 1816½ North Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, CA. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 PM, with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. For ticket information or reservations call (213) 761-7061 or (866) 811-4111, or log onto: www.SkylightTix.org . For Parking information, checkout: http://skylighttheatre.org/plan-your-visit .
Production Stills by Ed Krieger Courtesy Of Judith Borne Of “Borne Identities PR” (www.borneidentities.com) And “The Skylight Theatre Company”(http://skylighttheatre.org); Special Thanks To Judith Borne, Gary Grossman, Tony Abatemarco, Hunter Bird, Janet Rosten, Anthony Lucca, And To The Cast And Crew Of “The Skylight Theatre Company’s” 2019 World Premiere Production Of “Bronco Billy—The Musical” For Making This Story Possible.