Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
Idaho! The Comedy Musical
An attempted parody of the landmark musical Oklahoma!, an earlier version of Idaho! garnered multiple awards at the 2008 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Based on a recent performance, however, the production faces an uphill battle in its quest for prime Broadway real estate. Although the show delivers a handful of lovely ballads and an eco-friendly storyline, these are overwhelmed by the sophomoric and heavy-handed attempts at ribald humor. The Book of Mormon it ain'tnot even Something Rotten!.
The story is set in the early 1900s, in the agrarian (and spelling-challenged) community of Angel's Butt, Idaho. The residents face two sources of trouble: the perennial risk of crop failure and the environmentally unfriendly ambitions of avaricious landowner Jed Strunk. More trouble arises when Strunk's mail order bride Cassie Purdy arrives on the scene, only to fall for the handsome but struggling spud farmer Whip Masters, who immediately reciprocates her feelings. Meanwhile, Whip's best pal Slim Johnson grows increasingly frustrated by his apparently unrequited love for local playgirl Ida Dunham, who happily beds every man in sight except for Slim. While the parallels with Oklahoma! are obvious, and Idaho! might accurately be described as an homage, it is difficult to see how it qualifies as parody. Rest assured that Oklahoma!'s reputation emerges unscathed.
The town and character names give a hint of the show's concept of humor. (See the cast list below for more cringeworthy examples.) Idaho! borrows heavily but unimaginatively from the burlesque tradition, spewing an unrelenting stream of dirty jokes, crude language, suggestive poses, and bathroom humor that could easily have been crafted by high schoolers. (For viewers with long memories, it is the stage equivalent of television's "Hee Haw.") Judging from the enthusiastic audience response at the performance I attended, even in the new, improved Las Vegas there is still an appetite for this genre. The school-age mentality surfaces also in jokey self-referencing commentary by the characters and chorus, as though we need repeated reminders that we are watching a spoof (and as though the show's title were not clue enough). In contrast, Broadway's amusing parody Something Rotten!, while hardly high-brow entertainment, places more faith in its audience, making good fun of both Shakespeare and musical theatre conventions without constantly reminding us what it is doing.
Although Idaho!''s book and lyrics (by Buddy Sheffield) are largely disappointing, the music (co-composed by Sheffield and Keith Thompson, who is also the show's music director) is never less than pleasing, especially in the solos and duets.
For the most part, the production values outshine the book. Matt Lenz provides capable direction, and the creators could not ask for a better cast. Most of them, while young, are veterans of Broadway, Off-Broadway, national tours, and high quality regional stages. Three of the featured actresses are especially strong, and their solo vocals are easily the high points of the evening. Jessica Fontana, in particular, triumphs as the reluctant bride Cassie, with strong acting skills, solid dancing, and a soaring soprano. Her solos "Instead" and "Pocatella Fella" provide some of the evening's best moments. Carmen Ruby Floyd brings smart comic timing and a warm bluesy sensibility, together with smooth and stylish vocals, to the odd character of Mavis White Eagle, an African-American woman masquerading as a Native American. (Don't ask.) We wait a long time for Jennifer Perry as Aunt Pearlie to get the stage to herself, but when she finally does, her 11 o'clock number "One More Sweet Tomorrow" is pure enchantment. Just bring these ladies back to Vegas, please, stick a mike on the stage, and let them sing for us without the surrounding distractions. (And let Keith Thompson be their musical director.)
While there are no equivalent standouts among the male performers, they are solid actor-singers who give it their all. Nathaniel Hackmann is a hunky and likeable Whip, and would make a formidable Curly in the actual Oklahoma!; unsurprisingly, Hackmann has performed that role in regional theatre. Paul Vogt is a believable bad guy as the portly land-grabber Jed Strunk, and reveals a fine singing voice in the otherwise-forgettable "I Don't Mean to be Mean."
Rounding out the featured roles are strong performances by Matt Loehr as Slim (lending good voice to the pleasant "Cabin on a Hill"), Alex Ellis as the sexually rambunctious Ida, and Jay Rogers as Uncle Fate. The singing/dancing ensemble brings ample talent and high energy to their supporting roles. They perform the unremarkable choreography with style and professionalism.
The 17-person orchestra, ably conducted by Thompson, enjoys a prominent position upstage center; their pleasing performance makes their onstage placement well-deserved. Unfortunately, the visual pleasure of watching musicians at work is too often frustrated by Andy Walmsley's set designin particular, the inexplicably ugly fences that cover the entire width of the stage at times. This fencing, together with a house façade and porch, composes most of the uninspired scenery. Although Walmsley has a host of impressive credits from Broadway, the West End, films and television, his work here clearly suffers from budgetary constraints. It also shrinks the proscenium arch just enough to obstruct the views of audience members seated on the far sides. A redeeming feature, however, is the delightful potato-moon projection on the upstage wall.
Happily, Charlie Morrison's effective lighting design and Michael McDonald's charming costumes provide sorely needed visual stimulation. Reynolds Hall may be a fine venue for dance and symphonies, but the acoustics seem to be problematic for the spoken word, posing a challenge for sound designer John Trace. At Friday's preview, portions of the dialogue and lyrics were indecipherable in the upper tiers.
At nearly two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission, Idaho! The Comedy Musical is not unusually long for a musical, but the book's shortcomings make the evening feel tedious. Whip's inspired solution to the town's agricultural crisis provides a clever and funny plot twist, but, sadly, this flash of genius arrives too little, too late to avert the show's creative crisis. While this reviewer was more than ready to bolt at intermission, it must be noted that the vast majority of the audience returned in force for act two. À chacun son goût.
Las Vegas is not a traditional try-out town for shows with Broadway ambitions, but The Smith Center has finally made this possible, as evidenced by Teller's The Tempest and now Idaho!. By definition, an out-of-town try-out is a work in progress. Hopefully the creators of Idaho! will use this opportunity to refine their production so that it can appeal to a broader audience.
Idaho! The Comedy Musical continues through July 17, 2016, (Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., and Sunday, July 17, at 7:30 p.m.) in Reynolds Hall at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, 361 Symphony Park Ave., Las Vegas, NV 89106. For tickets ($19-$89) or further information, go to www.thesmithcenter.com or call 702-749-2000.
Whip Masters: Nathaniel Hackmann