Out of the Chute

The debut of Urban Cowboy is a rough ride indeed

That song's title is apt. Despite this show's many assets, it's saddled to a powerful passel of problems. For starters, Latham, who wasn't much of a screenwriter, isn't much of a playwright either. Scene after scene feels sketchy and de rigueur, merely connecting one plot turn to the next with the least amount of characterization and story development possible. This is the Tinkertoy school of dramatic plotting, lacking subplots or emotional shadings. This strategy might work in, say, early Cole Porter, but Urban Cowboy aims for darker, weightier game. Its story encompasses class conflict, gender identities, sexual politics, and domestic violence, but its characters remain stock musical-comedy types. On top of this, the musical doesn't have very good music. I like country-and-western songs as well as the next person, but pop songs don't necessarily make effective showtunes. Cowboy's songs are melodically boring, lyric-driven, and written to be sung into a mike. Consider the phrase (and song) "Boot Scootin' Boogie." This is lockjaw music, not a refrain that lends itself to a full-voiced stage belt. And don't try humming the show's big-whoop finale, "Lookin' for Love," while driving: You're likely to fall asleep at the wheel. Although some of these numbers do drive the story, several others do not, especially in a second act that offers a series of songs -- "T-R-O-U-B-L-E," "Dances Turn to Dreams," and "Git" -- as mere backdrop to the story, which arrives in dollops between musical licks. The result is a musical that's long on energy but short on substance.

What to do? Well, persistence is always a virtue, and this show's creative team certainly has that. No doubt, it will keep improving the spoken dialogue, replace the weaker songs with more melodic, dramatically viable ones, and add more scoring. It could also cut down on the interminable barroom dance numbers and let the choreographer cut loose with more daring "dramatic dance," something along the lines of "Slaughter on 10th Avenue." And while this Cowboy crew is sweating the big stuff, it might as well sweat some of the details. For example, the mechanical bull, the centerpiece of the show, is ass-backward: The actors are riding it like a horse event -- bareback or saddle bronc -- with the tapered end in the front. Bull riders ride the thing with the broad end to the front, which replicates a bull's anatomy.

Dude, you're on that thing backwards
Dude, you're on that thing backwards

Details

Choreographed by Melinda Roy. Music direction, orchestration, and arrangements by Jason Robert Brown. Presented through December 1. Call 305-442-4000.
Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., Miami

In small ways and some big ones, Urban Cowboy could use some work, but that's what out-of-town tryouts are all about. Time to get back to rosin up the ol' glove, get back on that bad boy, hold on tight, give the nod, and off you go! All the way, we hope, to Broadway.

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