Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

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April 19, 2012

REVIEW: 'Cowboys' a different sort of musical

CROSSVILLE — As visiting members of my family and I drove home on the opening night of Cowboys! we continued to chuckle over the horses ridden by these cowpokes. We wondered how they were created and marveled that Greg and Lindy Pendzick could ride one together. My daughter commented, "I haven’t laughed so hard in years."

"Give it a really good review, Grandma," advised my eleven-year-old grandson.

John Briggs wrote the show with Paul Mroczka and Judith Townsend. His note in the program tells us that “Cowboys” is intended as a gentle spoof of Hollywood western films, with an ear tuned to that genre of music and an eye focused on the zaniness of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.” Jim Crabtree discovered “Cowboys” in 1981 and brought it to the Playhouse where he directed and starred in the production.

On this opening night, 32 years later, Briggs is the director. Jim Crabtree plays Phinnius Phalstaff, the actor manager of a medicine show company and Colonel Lynch, the leader of the Badland Gang and head of Robber’s Roost.

Clearly visible on stage right, her bonnet-festooned head bobbing while her hands sped over the keyboard, is Annie Crabtree. She keeps this fast-paced show moving! Joining her are musicians Drew Robbins and Tommy Hancock on guitar, Tony Greco on upright bass, Austin Price on percussion, mandolin and banjo. Lauren Marshall is busy with her fiddle but steps to the stage in the hilarious role of a temperance woman. She steps out of character to remind the other musicians that they are about to drown out her best lines.

Musicians Hancock, Marshall and Price join the dance ensemble periodically. Fellow ensemble members are Porter Anderson, Quinn Cason, Jensen Crain, Donald Frison, Debra Marie, Caitlin Schaub and Derek Wagner.

Greg Pendzick is cast in the various roles required by the show: Toadsticker/Mean Boss Lynch/Phinnius’ stage manager, and the villain of the story. He wants power and expects to exercise it.  

Jason Ross is beloved for his ability to be ridiculous and over-the-top in playing character parts. As Alfred Rowland, the oldest brother on the Rowland Family Ranch, he uses his silliness skills to the fullest extent. Daniel Black plays Alfred’s younger brother, Rusty. The sight of him rocking along on his horse is hilarious.

Jim Crabtree, a.k.a. Judge Lynch, is hoping for re-election. Oh, that his only daughter Rose had not been killed! But, wait. Rose, played by Lindy Pendzick, is alive and well. Just back from an eastern school where she has learned to be a lady, she packs a mighty pistol, too. On the hill overlooking Cheyenne, she mourns the death of her father as she sings "Papa." What joy at discovering that he also is alive. The Judge is aiming for residence at 1600 Pennsylvania. Maybe Rose can help.

Mean Boss Lynch (Greg Pendzick) also has a daughter. Emily Woods is seen in that role, sometimes called Kitty Lynch and at other times Kitty Hawk, with appropriate flapping of the wings. She longs for a man in uniform. All Ross’ charms cannot win her, it seems.

A mostly silent comic addition is the ever-present Blabby Gaze played by Michael Ruff. He is the Rowland boys’ mentor. (I kept thinking of the Lone Ranger’s Tonto!) I especially enjoy the fine duet "West of Yesterday" that he sings with Black.  

Weslie Webster has the most ludicrous role in this show, one filled with mistaken identities. She is sleazy dance hall girl, Margo Bordeaux from Paris! Scantily costumed, Webster joins three women of the ensemble in a wild cancan dance while entertaining at the Cheyenne Social Club. She identifies herself in song as Margo. Maybe she has amnesia. Is she really Ginny Rowland, the long-lost mother of Alfred and Rusty?

The scenery is frequently pulled into place on ropes, removed and replaced depending on whether the action is at the Rowland Ranch in Wyoming Territory in the 1880s, on a hill overlooking Cheyenne, or in the Cheyenne Social Club. It may even be north on the Canadian border. It is all part of the over-obvious spoof of the cowboy myth.

There are 15 scenes within the two acts showcasing 19 delightfully varied songs. This is unusually well written and performed music and lyrics. Timing is everything in a show like this. They never miss a beat. These are fine actors with wonderful voices. Whether on horseback or dancing, they allow themselves to be ridiculous in order to bring the audience an evening of fun. The plot is thin but the show is rich with music, dance, and action. Whether singing "Step Right Up" at the beginning and end of the show, or joining the company on "Cowboys!' and "The Devil’s Trail," Jim Crabtree’s voice has timber I have not heard in recent years.    

Amid the frivolity, Jim Crabtree brings us a magnificent ballad as he sings, “Love is a Gamble.” We celebrate that Jim and Annie took the gamble so many years ago, their unique shared skills are a gift to us all. Thanks, John Briggs, for bringing a very different sort of musical to the Mainstage of the Cumberland County Playhouse.   

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