The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011
There are few genres of musical theatre more sclerotic than the "rock musical," as most of the titles that fall into that category strain so much to be hip that they ultimately prove how square they truly are. The folks behind the New York Musical Theatre Festival have at last redeemed most of their past misfires (as well as those of many lackadaisical producers outside the Festival's auspices) with Outlaws: The Ballad of Billy the Kid, about which the worst that can be said is that it only has one performance remaining in its NYMF run at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre.
This is the real deal, folks. Not only does its score, which features music by Alastair William King and Perry Liu and lyrics by Liu, legitimately sizzle, it's done straight, in the grand tradition of serving its story. That means you won't have to endure these 19th-century characters drag around microphone stands or the director (Jenn Rapp, who also choreographed) strain to justify such technology within the scope of the production. This is more Rent (cheek mics and all) than Spring Awakening: actual theatre, not a concept album with delusions of mediocrity.
As it turns out, the format is ideal for this cautionary tale about a young man whose longing to escape his hardscrabble New Mexico existence leads him to murder, life as a fugitive, and an almost tragic fall from his notorious grace. When we meet Billy (Corey Boardman), he's abandoning the mother he believes stifled both him and the now-absent father whose command with a six-shooter he adored. He meets Pat Garrett (David Murgittroyd), and the two hie out for the promised land of California.
Things don't go quite according to plan, of course, and through a combination of grifting and good deed doing, Billy ends up with a gang, a girlfriend with her own burdens (named Celsa, and played by Isabel Santiago), and his face on a Wanted poster. This leads him to a kind of fame he's not equipped to deal with, and that eventually splits apart his both his surrogate family and, well, his own body in the vehicle of a well-timed bullet.
Yet neither the composers nor Joe Calarco, who collaborated with them on the book, allow themselves to get mired in easy morals about the dangers of guns or the debilitating glare of the public eye. That's all implicit. Instead, they let their work speak entirely for itself as a breathless, complicated, and gut-clenching trip through the roller-coaster ride that is America, one that holds the media and historians as accountable for our failings as it does us. For if the tale were never told, what impact would it have? That the show's take on events is highly fictionalized on top of it all is the final, most delicious at work: Even someone who witnessed the world shifting first-hand cannot always be automatically trusted.
The roiling uncertainty of existence is the specific thrust of "That's What They Said," the Western-tinged number that opens the show and returns throughout as a constant motif of Billy and his cohorts staying just ahead of their public personas. But buying into one's own legend, or even worse one's own imagination, is the subject of most of the songs: "The Way of the World" and "I Am," in which Billy and Pat cement their friendship; "Days of Glory" and "We Do Whatever We Want," first-person glamorizations of too much freedom; and even "The Gun Song," which imbues a sidearm with near-spiritual significance. Even the sole ballad, "A Place in the Sun," is as much about unreachable fantasy as it is Billy and Celsa's burgeoning romance.
So well ordered and articulated are all these ideas that it doesn't take much to drive them home, yet no one here has settled for average. Rapp's rip-roaring concert staging and Chris Blisset's killer band and orchestrations provide a jolting backdrop that's expertly ornamented by David Gallo's newspaper-themed set and Sky Switser's witty street punk–meets–cowhand costumes. The performers are no less inspired. The strongest are the youthfully charismatic Boardman, who drips with smarmy attitude; Murgittroyd, a stellar singer who doesn't miss a nuance of Pat's increasing apprehension at walking alongside the monster he helped create; and Santiago, a pop belter of the highest order who's every bit as good at conveying the softness beneath this woman being forced to choose between obscurity and infamy.
Running only an hour and 45 minutes, the show is incredibly tight, but it's not yet perfect. The creators may wish to consider deleting the intermission, which interrupts the action just as it's peaking. Beefing up the book a little, particularly in the shaky final scenes, would help keep the stakes high. And, even given the off-hand style they're adopting, the lyrics are more prone to cliché and false rhymes than they need to be.
Still, there's not much else here that's familiar or predictable. The authors take on and wrangle into submission sacred cows of all sorts, from the romanticism surrounding violent figures to the notion that contemporary rock musicals can't be as intellectually satisfying as they are viscerally thrilling. The real Billy was a maverick who played by (and was taken down by) rules he wrote himself; Outlaws: The Ballad of Billy the Kid succeeds because Calarco, King, and Liu have followed, almost to the letter, the rules of both rock concerts and musical theatre. The result is an evening so electrifying, you may wonder whether Billy packed a Taser rather than a Colt.
Outlaws: The Ballad of Billy the Kid