Urban Cowboy began life as an Esquire article called, musically enough, "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy." The reporter was Aaron Latham, who had become intrigued by all the wannabe cowpokes hanging around Gilley's in Houston; he remained intrigued when James Bridges tapped him to turn the evocative piece into a movie. In adapting the screenplay co-authored by Latham and Bridges to the medium of live thee-ay-ter, he and co-librettist Phillip Oesterman (recently deceased) included songs by country chart-toppers Clint Black, Shania Twain, Jerry Chesnut, Wayland D. Holyfield, and Bob Lee House. The shrewd creators also waited for just the right moment to unleash the hot and sexy "Devil Went Down to Georgia," which was written by a list of people that's almost longer than the lyric: Charlie Daniels, Tom Crain, Fred Edwards, Taz DiGregorio, Jim Marshall and Charlie Hayward.
The curious thing is that the songs created by these tunesmiths, hurled at the audience with all the subtlety of a cattle drive, sound so much alike. Country music has traditionally been accused by music theorists and other snobs of too often consisting of three-chord melodies with inane words. It's an unfair criticism, but for anyone intent on making it stick, the Urban Cowboy score could serve as strong evidence. There are a few exceptions to the prevailing mediocrity. One is Brown's "That's How She Rides," sung about a gal maneuvering a mechanical bull. Another is the gritty and crafty "Devil Went Down...." For the most part, however, here's a musical that sounds as if a roomful of composers and lyricists got together to write one long, loud, neo-Nashville country song meant to be interrupted as infrequently as possible by dialogue.
Yup, the songs keep coming. And so does Melinda Roy's choreography, which shares the score's problem: sameness. Seven couples, heterosexual as all get-out and grinding their groins to prove it, repeatedly shoot onto the floor. In what seem to be variations on the Texas two-step, they kick up their heels and slap their thighs until their denims fairly shout for mercy. Every once in a while, Roy throws in line-dance steps as well. Perhaps she was worried that adhering to authentic two-steps and line dances would quickly pall, but the Broadway-ized country shuffling she's devised has its own numbing qualities.
Too bad, because Urban Cowboy needs all the help it can get to keep the action hopping. Buford Uan Davis, called Bud because of his initials and played by fresh-faced newcomer Matt Cavenaugh, comes to Houston from small town Spur, Texas to make some money in order to buy a farm. Drawn to Gilley's, he meets two eager regulars on his first night there and beds them. The next day, he thinks he has found true love: He meets the tomboyish Sissy (Jenn Colella), who works at the chemical factory where Bud has taken a job secured by his gruff but adoring Uncle Bob (Leo Burmester). Bud's Aunt Corene (Sally Mayes) may disapprove of Sissy, but Bud, satisfied that his woman will be faithful forever, proposes marriage. The couple's trailer-park bliss is threatened all too soon, when the menacing escaped convict Wes (Marcus Chait) comes to town and sets himself up at Gilley's. Bud, certain that Sissy has cheated on him with the nasty Wes, tosses her out and takes up with blonde oil brat Pam (Jodi Stevens). There's a stand-off that doesn't get resolved until Gilley's proprietor and lead singer Jesse (Rozz Morehead) runs a bull-riding contest.
The competition has high stakes -- $10,000, to be precise -- but the show's stakes are lower than a sidewinder's belly. Anyone who watches this enterprise thinking that Bud and Sissy are doomed to remain parted and that apple-cheeked Aunt Corene won't have a change of heart should have to repeat first grade. The thing that comes between the estranged lovers is not really the tattooed Wes, who totes a gun and a knife but is disarmed by the libretto. Nor are Bud and Sissy truly separated by the ominous presence of the huge mechanical bull -- which was a challenge to reckon with in the movie but on stage is as tame as an old polecat, for reasons having to do with the lack of possibilities for repeated takes and the fact that there are no stunt doubles available. No, what keeps these two apart are all those ho-hum songs that have to get sung and all those so-so dances that have to get danced.
The show's big attraction, as Jason Robert Brown's band twirls on James Noone's factory-like set, is the singing. Well, the twanging thesps sure don't have much acting on their plate, and all that director Lonny Price can do is keep them out of each other's paths. Matt Cavenaugh has a set of pipes as sturdy as his physique. (He shucks Ellis Tillman's down-homey costumes more than once to show his chest, which is only partially displayed in the show's ads.) Jenn Colella as Sissy has a rough-and-ready way with a tune, and the same can be said of the always primed Sally Mayes, who gets to deliver something called "All Because of You." (Urban Cowboy might have been livelier if this performer had been allowed to borrow from her nightclub act Jeff Franzel's "He Ain't Mister Right (But He's Mister Right Now)," a country item that stops the show whenever Mayes sprinkles it with her verve.) Leo Burmester, resembling a character in a Garry Trudeau comic strip; Jodi Stevens, with her Houston Oilers cheerleader looks; and Marcus Chait, another slab of stage beefcake, give their throats healthy workouts, too. Lighting designer Natasha Katz and sound designer Peter Fitzgerald make sure that all 20 cast members are seen and heard in the proper garish manner.
When Aaron Latham wrote his Esquire piece, he was making a point about the New West, where definitions of masculinity have shifted and where nine-to-fivers try to prove their manhood by challenging a machine designed to move like a riled bull. Latham's intentions were journalistic, his attitude ironic. When he had to turn the article into a screenplay, he found himself up against certain dramatic demands. The task facing him and his collaborators in crafting a stage musical of Urban Cowboy has been tricky, and not completely unlike having to climb on a bucking bull themselves. The right-ugly outcome is that they've been thrown.