Out of the Chute

Broadway musicals and rodeo bull riding are more similar than you might think. Trying to ride a rodeo bull basically means two things. First, you have to stay on for eight full seconds to succeed, with no second chance. Second, the bull doesn't care whether you're a pro or a first-timer; he's going to throw a whole lot of hurt your way. That's pretty much what it's like trying to ride a big ol' musical into New York City. Each show has one shot at success no matter what mistakes or twists of fate it may encounter. One such wild ride is Urban Cowboy, a new musical making its world premiere at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. This Cowboy posse delivers a lot of talent, heart, and determination, but it is trying to ride a big slippery bull of a show that just might buck everyone off before it hits the Great White Way.

The show is based on the 1980 motion picture of the same name, which is based on "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy," a magazine story by Aaron Latham. In that piece Latham examined the number of rural Texans in the late Seventies who left home for Houston and other Gulf cities when jobs in the oil-patch business were plentiful. Latham's article was picked up by Paramount as the basis for the film, which he co-wrote for director James Bridges. The picture, which starred John Travolta as a young cowboy, was notable chiefly for its lavish use of country-and-western hits sung by big C&W stars. Travolta wasn't plausible as a small-town shitkicker, but his star power and the hit soundtrack made the movie a moneymaker.

The picture capitalized on the late-Seventies "back to basics" trend, which made cowboy culture -- hats, boots, and Western wear -- a fad not only in the South and West but even on Wall Street. Country-and-western bars were packed with cowboy wannabes who took turns trying to ride hard-bucking, quick-turning mechanical bulls, machines that were previously used only by rodeo cowboys seeking to practice their moves before competitions. The whole movement was something of a conservative, populist reaction to the perceived left-wing/urban dominance of the Vietnam era, presaging the advent of Reaganism.

Cut to years later, when Latham was approached by New York writer/director Phillip Oesterman; he wanted to turn Cowboy into a musical, featuring all those hit songs. Like recent films-turned-musicals Saturday Night Fever (another Travolta film vehicle) and Hairspray, Urban Cowboy is intended to launch from a general public recognition, however dimly recalled, of the film version. Latham and Oesterman collaborated on the stage version, with Oesterman also scheduled to direct.

The story is simple, even for a musical. A young country boy, Bud, goes to Houston seeking his fortune so he can buy some land and start a ranch back home. He bunks with his kindly aunt and uncle and heads over to Gilley's, a famous C&W bar, for a beer. There he meets a couple of sexed-up sisters who take him to bed, but soon after he meets perky Sissy, who has set her sights on finding a "real cowboy." Bud gets her heart to galloping, and soon they are happy newlyweds with a double-wide trailer they call home.

But then -- wouldn't ya know? -- trouble appears in the person of evil Wes, an escaped con who teaches Sissy to ride the mechanical bull at Gilley's, goading Bud into a fit of jealousy. Marital problems ensue, and the couple splits. Bud makes a beeline for Pam, a tall, cool songstress whose oilman daddy keeps her in a swank apartment uptown. Meanwhile Sissy dallies with Wes at his lowlife crash pad. She drinks his tequila but balks when he puts the moves on her. She stays true to Bud, who can't believe she didn't sleep with his enemy. The Bud/Wes rivalry builds to a showdown at the bar's bull-riding contest at Gilley's. All of this drama, high jinks, and heartache are delivered in a string of country-and-western tunes featuring Cowboy's hard-driving onstage band.

So far so good, but here's where the bull starts bucking. Latham and Oesterman secured the adaptation rights from Paramount but couldn't get the rights to most of the songs from the film, so new songs were plugged in. Major roles had to be recast before the show came to Florida; the current cast has no stars with box-office draw. Worse, Oesterman died in July, leaving the production without a director or a writer with any theatrical experience.

These are tough breaks for any show, but this one rides on with a new director, Lonny Price, who brings some quick-paced, inventive staging. He's backed by vigorous choreography from Melinda Roy, a former principal ballerina at the New York City Ballet before she went country. Her full-throttle production numbers sure do rock the playhouse, and there's a hilarious pas de deux as a drunken cowboy tries to make off with a drunken cowgirl.

Roy's pedal-to-the-metal style suits the high-energy cast headed by Matt Cavenaugh, a tall, sweet-faced young actor with a strong voice, good comic instincts, and an amazingly toned body: The guy looks like a Soloflex ad. Cavenaugh has several show-stopping numbers: "I'm Gonna Like It Here," a comical romp, and the powerful first-act ender, the heartfelt "I Take It Back." As Sissy, newcomer Jenn Collela is feisty and physical, but she comes across as more emotionally distant than the story calls for, and while her singing voice is well suited to the soft C&W ballads, she tends to screech in her big musical moments. Some of this may be attributed to opening jitters; she most likely will relax and settle into her role as the run continues. The supporting cast brings more musical experience. Rozz Morehead, as Gilley's manager, wrings a lot of soul out of the R&B tune "Better Days," and Marcus Chait as bad guy Wes makes his presence known with "My Back's Up Against the Wall."

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 show tunes. 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 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.

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.