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Lone Star Love or, the Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

It might be time to call for a moratorium on western-themed musicals. Sure, you can find one classic title (Oklahoma!) and a few others of notable distinction (Destry Rides Again or, moving forward a few decades, The Will Rogers Follies), but New York's recent track record has been less than stellar. The genre's latest entry, Lone Star Love, just opened at the John Houseman Theater and does not break the losing streak.

What it has going for it is a fine pedigree in William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, something New York's two recent cowboy-themed flops - Urban Cowboy on Broadway last year and Johnny Guitar Off-Broadway last season - couldn't claim. But those two shows (and Trevor Nunn's monumentally misguided 2002 Oklahoma! revival) could at least boast an impressive stylistic unity that suggested a worthy target for their ambitions.

Lone Star Love's attempts at this seem intended to excuse the crudity of the book (conceived and adapted from Shakespeare's original by John L. Haber) and score (by Jack Herrick). The concept sees the production (apparently set in 1997, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's original play) begin with a barbecue (the audience is invited) after which the actors explain that they're going to put on a version of the Bard's classic comedy with a "little bit of Texas beef."

So, the action is reset in the post-Civil War years, making the potbellied Falstaff (Jay O. Sanders) a former Confederate sergeant who settles in Windsor, Texas looking for "cold cash" and "hot sex." He meets two beautiful local wives, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page (Beth Leavel and Stacia Fernandez), and after currying their favor by accidentally stopping a cattle stampede, sets his sights on them. He's unaware that they can (and will) take care of themselves, if to the chagrin of their husbands (Gary Sandy is the violently jealous Frank Ford, Dan Sharkey is George Page).

A subplot also finds yodeling cowboy Fenton (Clark Thorell) falling in love with the Page daughter, MissAnne (Julie Tolivar), though her parents have variously promised her to Abraham Slender (Brandon Williams) and the French Doctor Caius (a gaudily Gallic Drew McVety). After a fair amount of mistaken identity and cross-dressing, both stories are quickly resolved, and just about everyone prepares to live happily ever after.

The play, then, takes on the hammered finish of a tale of the threat to Reconstruction morals in the face of climactic social upheaval, as well as an honest, down-home celebration of traditional values. But the creative team, led by director Michael Bogdanov, is too willing to let the festivities wallow in amateur-hour theatrics. There's a vague, let's-put-on-a-show feel to Derek McLane's vast, barn-inspired set (two large doors at the back occasionally open to provide outside views), and Jane Greenwood's costumes are her usually elegantly inelegant spin on the homespun.

But even Randy Skinner's choreography - there's quite a bit of it, and it even dominates the curtain calls - is undistinguished, of the predictable clap-and-stamp hoedown variety that western shows of any type can apparently not exist without. (Yes, someone spins a rope at one point, too.) Skinner's work is well-danced by the company, and there are high kicks and waving hats galore, but with so little variation in the steps and stomps, it all tends to grow old quickly.

So does the music - Herrick's score comprises some 19 numbers, generally falling into the "ballad by sunset" or "roof-raiser" categories, with little additional variance. Only when the Red Clay Ramblers (Herrick himself, Clay Buckner, and Chris Frank), serving as part of the orchestra (six pieces, the same size as Dracula's, with no synthesizer I could see), come downstage to spin their own rustic ballads does the production really seem to burst with spicy, southwestern flavor.

The performers are professional but underpowered, almost parodying the way the Texas actors they portray might put on this show. This concept plays poorly, and leads to a lot of bluster but little substance from Sanders, Sandy brooding his way through the show (including applying brute force to his lone solo, like an exhausted cowboy driving cattle too late at night), and Leavel receiving far fewer laughs than is the custom for her. Thorell and Tolivar deliver nicely in their roles, and wring a bit of almost-genuine feeling from their ballads; McVety's over-the-top French accent garners some laughs by default, and Harriet D. Foy, as Caius's go-to-girl Miss Quickly, is also frequently entertaining.

But the show itself too seldom is, despite Texas-sized attempts from the cast, and a surfeit of affected winsome energy. Lone Star Love isn't totally without its charms, but while the occasional song (like the synthetically infectious title tune) and dance (the energetic "Sugarfoot Rag") stands out, the pre-show eats (catered by Virgil's BBQ) and intermission cookies and lemonade leave a much better taste in your mouth.

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AMAS Musical Theatre
Lone Star Love or, the Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas
Through January 9
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
John Houseman Theatre, 450 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge