Pete Wilke isn't the first name that comes to mind when the subject of country music comes up.
"It's funny, after the show, people I know will come up to me and say, 'Wow, you did this?' " said Wilke, 50, an L.A.-based entertainment lawyer who wrote the script and lyrics for "Country! The Musical," a new show playing Saturdays at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana. "Maybe they don't know this part of me, but I've just decided it's time to let this creative voice come out."
With an original story set in a fictional barbecue supper club in Bakersfield, "Country! The Musical" revolves around the intertwined lives of six people working and eating at Country, the local eatery-watering hole owned by Wild Troy Owens (Gary Paul Clark).
Among Country's regular performers are two of its waitresses--fortysomething Loretta Jane Franklin (Lorraine Devon-Wilke) and the younger Annie Lynn (Ronna Jones)--who sing with the house band but share big-time recording aspirations.
The plot thickens as Loretta falls hard for Timothy Longstreet (Craig Woolson), a Los Angeles Times travel writer (seriously!) who has his eye on the young, attractive Annie. Complicating matters is a trucker named Frank (Bruce McKinnon), Wild Troy's best buddy, who, while smarting from a bitter divorce, becomes drawn to the talented, soul-searching Loretta.
The show's 20 songs add thematic depth as they propel the story forward. They're performed by a tight, six-piece band led by singer-guitarist Jeff Brown, who also wrote the music for Wilke's lyrics, and features steel guitarist Gary Brandin, who has played in the Southern California country bands of Patty Booker, Marc Corey Lee and others.
"The band really functions like another significant character within the story," said director-choreographer Kay Cole in a separate interview. "Plus, the music brings an enormous amount of underscoring that gives the piece continual energy and rhythm."
Another key element is the show's environment. The entire Crazy Horse is transformed into a vibrant stage, and at various times throughout Saturday's performance, the small but enthusiastic crowd got into the act--and loved it.
"It's environmental theater, where we integrate the bar, some tables and even some members of the audience. . . . There's movement and action all around," added Cole, who played Maggie in the original Broadway production of "A Chorus Line." "It's a very physical piece. . . . Occasionally, a cast member will speak directly to someone in the audience who's just a few feet away. It can be very exciting."
What inspired a city slicker like Wilke, who earned a law degree at UCLA and lives in Beachwood Canyon ("just under the Hollywood sign," he said) with his wife and their 6-year-old son, to mount such a seemingly out-of-character hootenanny?
To begin with, Wilke lived for a few years in the small resort town of Kalispell, Mont. Moving there from Southern California at age 13, he said he "went from holding a skateboard in one hand to a toting a shotgun."
Wilke is also a big fan of country music who got hooked on the songs of Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. "I loved the simplicity as well as the directness of their storytelling right off the bat," he said.
Still, the seeds to "Country! The Musical" weren't sown until three years ago, when Wilke was working on a lawsuit involving a vineyard in Tulare County. During the trial, he spent a lot of time in Visalia, Tulare and Bakersfield. Writing songs, he said, helped release some of his ongoing, business-related stress.
"Writing really helped me to relax, and some songs just burst out," he said. " 'Sweetest Smile This Side of L.A.' is based on a friendly waitress who was inordinately physical, shall we say," he said with a laugh. "I wrote it one day in the parking lot of Andersen's Pea Soup, halfway between Fresno and Visalia.
"I wrote another one, 'Where Soft Hands Once Lay,' while I was staying at this Holiday Inn in Visalia," he said. "They're not autobiographical, but the songs do have ties to the everyday lives of ordinary people.
"I've heard a lot of jokes about Bakersfield being Hicksville and all that," Wilke said. "But I fell in love with the town. People there don't have all of the hidden agendas like [they do] in L.A.
"At night, I'd hang out at some of the clubs and bars, so when the idea came to me to write this musical, a barbecue supper club based in Bakersfield just popped into my head. Plus, it is the home of West Coast honky-tonk."
Wilke hopes audiences will not only be entertained by "Country! The Musical," but also moved by its message.
"The reason it's set in a saloon is because that's where you spend time with your friends . . . either crying in your beer or maybe raising a glass in celebration of something," he said. "It's perfect for the theme of our show.
"We want people to come away feeling that it's OK to be flawed . . . it's all right to have self-doubts," he said. "As long as you hold on to your dreams . . . if you persevere and approach life in a positive manner, things do have a way of working out."
* "Country! The Musical" is performed Saturdays at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana. 4 p.m. $15. Runs indefinitely. (714) 549-1512.