"Innocent fun for everyone," proclaims the company of Uncle Billy's Traveling Family Show at the end of the first musical number in Roadside, the new Jones and Schmidt musical that opened last night at the Theatre at St. Peter's. Innocent as the proceedings might be, they are all too frequently less than fun.
In fact, it isn't until the beginning of second act when James Hindman, as the good-natured Buzzey, celebrating his engagement, comes on and sings the peppy "Personality Plus" that the show is really fun at all. The few moments that come across as genuinely entertaining are mostly provided by Hindman and Ryan Appleby and Steve Barcus as two country cousins who have one good (yet mostly irrelevant) specialty in each act.
Specialty acts, though, are not necessarily out of place here. The show, as staged by director Drew Scott Harris (who also directed the premiere production of Roadside in Texas last year) has staged the show as a tent show, with much help from set designer James Morgan, who has transformed the theatre into a tent. Mary Jo Dondlinger's lighting and Suzy Benzinger's costumes help enhance the rickety, tent show feel.
Unfortunately, that feel doesn't always successfully extend to the material itself. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt have provided a few decent songs; "Personality Plus" and the two songs for the Ikes are the high points, and "Just the Way It Should Be" in the second act, and the slow, simple title tune are both attractive as well. The other music is appropriate for the setting and the show's tent show conceit, but is seldom truly memorable. It is only the specialty acts, generally fairly peripheral to the plot, that wake the show up from time to time.
Jones's book does little to assist. The story, which involves Hannie (Julie Johnson) and her romance with the roughhousing cowboy Texas (Jonathan Beck Reed), is very predictable, with all the moments you can imagine: She initially rebukes him, changes her mind, decides she was right the first time, then decides to win him back again. There's even a scene with Texas about to be hung that plays about as you imagine it will.
Taken as lighthearted and lightweight entertainment, Roadside might have been more watchable if more of the actors had been up to the task. Johnston and Reed, in the central roles, are the least successful; they completely lack chemistry together, and don't bring enough to their roles individually to make up for the deficiencies in their characters provided by the book. G. W. Bailey as Pap and Uncle Billy has some funny moments, when he can be heard from the audience. William Ryall, as the town Sheriff, and Tom Flagg and Jennifer Allen in minor supporting roles do what they can, but seldom have much to work with. Barcus and Appleby emerge mostly unscathed, and Hindman comes across quite well, but it is perhaps ironic that, being the most exciting character in the bunch, his story is not exactly destined to end happily.
It is interesting to note that Roadside is the project that originally brought Jones and Schmidt together. They began working on it in the 1950s, but let the show itself fall by the roadside when another little musical - one called The Fantasticks - came over the horizon.
Had Roadside been completed when Jones and Schmidt worked on it originally, perhaps things may have turned out differently. But though it has much in common with that other show - the performance aspect, the small cast, and its unassuming gentle nature - Roadside all too often feels dated as The Fantasticks does not.
The York Theatre Company