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STAGE REVIEW : MUSICAL ‘WESTERN’ MISSES THE MARK

Times Theater Writer

It sounds wonderful on paper: a musical about those fiercely independent Mountain Men of the West, wild hunters and trappers and scouts known to their Indian friends or foes as the “Long Knives.” These are men playwright Dale Wasserman describes as “the first--and arguably the last--truly free men in our history.”

Truly free they may have been; so free that they elude Wasserman’s most recent attempt to capture them. They were at the center of a play he wrote for television (“Elisha and the Long Knives”), then reworked as a one-act for the stage. Pursuing those earlier versions, Wasserman’s now got the fellas singing and dancing and whooping it up in a full-scale musical. “Shakespeare and the Indians” as it’s called (with score by Allan Jay Friedman) is the Santa Barbara Theatre Group’s latest offering at the Garvin Theatre on the City College campus. It’s a work in very early stages of progress.

Focus, or the lack of it, is its most crucial problem. Musicals don’t have to be linear, but they do have to be clear. In the broadest of terms, “Shakespeare” is the tale of an orphaned child of pioneers found and briefly adopted by three mountain men. They become deeply attached to the boy, who’s the only one among them who can read and who does so, aloud, from the complete works of Shakespeare.

(This angle of the story stems from Wasserman’s fascination with Jim Bridger, a mountain man who could neither read nor write but reportedly could quote long passages from Shakespeare.)

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The plot thickens when a pair of lost pioneers, Jonathan and Martha Peabody (Tod Fortner and Kathryn Voice), attach themselves to this mountain encampment and a struggle develops for the salvation of the boy Elisha (Ian Hillway).

The men want to make him over in their image, teach him to hunt and trap. Martha wants to rear him as a proper Christian. It gets resolved in the end--so neatly that it even connects after a fashion with the shadowy figure of the Civil War soldier (James O’Neill) whose dream this entire musical appears to be.

(Wasserman acknowledges he loves a mystery, but here he carries the affection too far.)

There are any number of other twists to this plot, some involving real Indians, others involving figments--such as the men’s vision of the loose St. Louis women they’d like to be near; Shakespearean actors who come off the page and act like a mildly ludicrous Greek chorus; even a strand or two of the much richer Indian lore.

The show’s most serious flaw is this overcrowding of plots. It needlessly burdens a frame that’s slender to begin with. Some judicious sorting could help alleviate another difficulty: It could make an overburdened audience see quicker and more clearly where this musical is headed. Right now we’re into the second half before the audience starts to realize that this is not the mountain men’s story, nor the Indians’ nor Shakespeare’s. It’s Elisha’s.

Friedman’s music has a pleasant lilt and a good sense of ballad (“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” “Lost Melody,” “Cobblestones,” “Who Is This Woman?”) as well as the capacity to be rousing when needed (“Wimmen,” “Be a Mountain Man” and a spirited tribute to Shakespeare, “Ain’t That Langwidge, Though”). But there’s a predictability to the score that is ultimately disappointing. Friedman has the talent to surprise and should indulge it more.

Aside from these built-in book and music problems, the show is poorly served by this production.

Director Karl Genus relies heavily on the cute and the unexacting. Rather than challenge his audience, he lulls it--at his peril. Where the show should have teeth, it bares a smile; where it should haunt, it soothes. It’s a placebo and what’s on stage finally owes more to Walt Disney than to history.

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With the exception of Voice’s touching and dignified Martha (with the best voice in the company, she’s also aptly named), the performances are riddled with cliches. And young master Hillway as the boy may simply be too young to grasp the role’s finer points. Without a charismatic Elisha, there is no show.

By far the best aspects of the production are Patricia L. Frank’s rocky mountain settings and Dorothy Jeakins’ and Pamela Shaw’s authentic-looking and often playful costumes (especially that of the Indian Nebo, regally decked out in top hat decorated with American flags and shaded by a lacy parasol). A special nod to Robert Gilliam as a spirit dancer and to choreographer Julie McLeod for that dance. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing-board for an extensive redesign.

‘SHAKESPEARE AND THE INDIANS’

A new musical presented by the Santa Barbara Theatre Group at the Garvin Theatre of Santa Barbara City College. Producer/artistic director Pope Freeman. Book and lyrics Dale Wasserman. Music Allan Jay Friedman. Director Karl Genus. Choreography Julie McLeod. Orchestrations and additional music Ed Lojeski. Musical direction David Potter. Costume design Dorothy Jeakins, Pamela Shaw. Scenic design Patricia L. Frank. Lighting design Michael J. Miller. Sound design Barbara Hirsch. Stage manager Peter Van Dyke. Cast James O’Neill, Mark Epp, Tod Fortner, Jerry Scurlock, Karyl Lynn Burns, Tobias Andersen, Kathryn Voice, Paul Hermanson, Christina Allison, Robert Gilliam, Felix G. Ray, Ian Hillway, Carlos Cerecedo. Musicians Don Neiman Jr., Bob Grass, Peter Madlem, David Potter, Josephine Brummel. Performances at 721 Cliff Drive in Santa Barbara run Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 8. Tickets: $10-$12; (805) 965-5935.

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