Urban Cowboy The Musical Based on the Paramount Picture. Book by Aaron Lathan and Phillip Oesterman. Musical Direction/ Orchestrations/Arrangements by Jason Robert Brown. Choreography by Melinda Roy. Directed by Lonny Price. Set and Projection Design by James Noone. Costume Design by Ellis Tillman. Ligiht Design by Natasha Katz. Sound Design by Peter Fitzgerald. Fight Director Rick Sordelet. Starring Matt Cavenaugh, Jenn Colella. Leo Burmester, Marcus Chait, Sally Mayes, Rozz Morehead, Jodi Stevens. Michael Balderrama, Mark Bove, Gerrard Carter, Nicole Foret, Justin Greer, Michelle Kittrell, Brian Letendre, Barrett Martin, Kimberly Dawn Neumann, Tera-Lee Pollin, Chad L. Schiro, Kelleia Sheerin, Paula Wise.
Though it's riding onto Broadway after a stop at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Urban Cowboy still looks like a musical that longs for the old days when hectic out-of-town tryouts and a good book doctor could whip a problematic musical into acceptable (if not perfect) shape. As it stands, it looks like a musical whose creators weren't quite ready to get on the horse.
Or the bull, as the case may be. After all, much of Urban Cowboy's book - by the late Phillip Oesterman and Aaron Latham, the author of the article and 1980 film that inspired the musical - finds the symbol of manhood and independence in the modern American west to be the mechanical bull, a threatening symbol of urbanization able to bruise pride as easily as it bruises the body, but one that provides spiritual rewards for the men or women who attempt to tame it.
Urban Cowboy's characters and story aren't compelling enough to substitute for the suspension of disbelief required to make the (necessarily) slow-moving mechanical bull seem threatening. The story is a familiar battle of wills when a young small-town Texan (Matt Cavenaugh) moves to the big city and falls in love with the woman (Jenn Colella) who's grown up in a world of men. He's torn between traditional and modern ideas of manhood, she between her innate femininity and the surrounding world of masculinity. They want to hold onto the other without making it look that way. And, of course, conquering the mechanical bull means, for each, successfully achieving their desires.
But Latham and Oesterman make it hard to care about either character, especially Bud, who sacrifices any claims to sympathy upon engaging in an offstage threesome within the first ten minutes of the show, and later commits adultery because he believes, but cannot prove, Sissy did the same to him. It's the kind of relationship where they've barely met before they're in the back seat of a truck; how could marital troubles not result? They're strangers to us as well as each other, so throwing them into the arms of another man and woman (Marcus Chait and Jodi Stevens) has little dramatic effect, and making Chait an ex-con and Pam a spoiled society girl does little to help. The complications keep building until Bud boards the bull to save both Sissy's honor and his own, with predictable results.
Few musicals need (or thrive on) complex plots; gaps in librettos exist to be filled by music. But the songs in Urban Cowboy are a hodgepodge of offerings, some from the film, some written specifically for the show, and some assembled from still other songwriters, with almost all used haphazardly and devoid of dramatic value. Note to Broadway musical creators: Songs written for specific characters in specific situations are still the best way to avoid this problem.
Only Jeff Blumenkrantz, one of the new composers, really understands this, his melodic "All Because of You" and "Another Guy" providing vital early glimpses into characters' inner workings. Few of the other songs can, or do, succeed at this, even those by Jason Robert Brown (the Tony-winning composer who orchestrated and arranged Urban Cowboy, provides musical direction, conducts the onstage band, and plays keyboards) are mostly dramatically undistinguished songs, with one ("Mr. Hopalong Heartbreak") sounding like most other songs he's written, and another ("That's How Texas Was Born") apparently having been written expressly for the purpose of giving him something to sing.
Similarly, no real cohesion exists in the design elements. Neither James Noone's catwalk and platform saloon set nor Natasha Katz's new-wave disco lights scream country, though Ellis Tillman's costumes are fine. All this suggests the show's director, Lonny Price, didn't know how to bring all the unrelated elements together, and many of his solutions - including trying to cover up transitions that should exist between a first date and a big wedding, or those leading up to one character's death - should have been handled more carefully.
With shaky construction, the cast becomes even more important, and again Urban Cowboy falters. Casting Sally Mayes as Bud's tough but loving Aunt may have been the production's biggest misstep as her mere presence in any scene is an uncomfortable reminder that almost no one else in the cast has stage presence to speak of. Her big solo spots are such highlights that the over-belted ballads and frenetic group dance numbers (choreographed to blasť perfection by Melinda Roy) can't compare.
Though given song after song, Cavenaugh and Colella can't make a real impression, lacking the charisma to make you care about them that the book's dialogue does not allow. Chait's manner is suggestive of menace without ever achieving it; Rozz Morehead, as the proprietress of the saloon in which much of the action takes place, similarly overarticulates perkiness; but Stevens brings but a spark of deeper meaning to her role. Try as he might, Leo Burmester can't do much with the role of Bud's uncle to differentiate him from the character he played in 2001's Thou Shalt Not.
Yet, Urban Cowboy does not end without providing some entertainment. It takes a character's death late in the second act to kick the show into high gear (is it a coincidence that when the stakes are high, the show becomes interesting?), but once it's there, even the cheesy, grinning nature of the show and predictable stagecraft can't keep Urban Cowboy from sending its audience out smiling.
But, until that point, Urban Cowboy is pretty slow going. It does everything it can to give its audience a check-your-brain-at-the-door, feel-good time except provide intelligent composition and thoughtful constructions that would provide fulfilling comedy and entertainment. When Urban Cowboy - or any show - lacks that, it truly lacks a whole lot more.