Not five minutes into Cowboys!, the new gay musical comedy at the Wings Theatre, you'll find yourself wishing that someone with a real spiky sense of humor and an inspired performance style--e.g., a Charles Busch--was involved with the show. As it stands, or tries to stand, Cowboys! is, at best, an innocuous piece of fluff that suffers from misguided casting and lamentably pedestrian direction.
A spoof of low-budget western movie musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, but set in a more modern time (already we're in trouble), Cowboys! takes place on and around the ironically named Straight Arrow Ranch. Everyone on the spread is gay except the kindly owner, Aunt Rosie Ritter (Judy Kranz), who has taken to hiring cowpokes that jingle, jangle, jingle. The book by Clint Jefferies employs all the expected western cliches, including the ranch about to be repossessed by the bank for back taxes, but the author has dressed-up the plot with a gay twist: Here, we have the cowboys relying on what they do best--sewing costumes, singing show tunes, etc.--in the hope of saving the ranch by putting on a musicale. Conceptually, that's a cute idea. In its execution, however, the show is often painfully boring; finding the right tone for a comically camp production can be quite difficult. There's a very fine line between camp and crap, and Cowboys! steps in more than its share of cow pies.
The music by Paul L. Johnson properly captures the familiar, simple melodies of the genre, and Jefferies' mildly amusing lyrics move the plot along. But the score doesn't get much of a chance to lasso the audience, because the direction by Jeffrey Corrick is so lame. In addition to having staged inelegant entrances and exits and providing an otherwise static presentation, Corrick seems to have chosen his cast for their buff good looks rather than their musical theater skills. Since this is, after all, a show with heaps of singing and dancing, it wouldn't hurt if the actors were good at those dang things. A couple of the cast members aren't bad, but nobody is really good, and several are pretty awful. As Christine Lavin might sing, "What were they thinking?"
Acting wise, one member of the company is excellent--in fact, he's a find--but the rest of the cast ranges from adequate to "Whoaah!" The actor who survives this show unscathed is Daniel Carlton as the ostensible heavy, Boston Bart Black (that's not a misprint). Attempting to cheat his way into ownership of the ranch, Bart seduces the hero, Ranger Rick Rowdy (John Lavin), who is the big draw in the coming musicale. Bart hopes to get Rick out of town so he'll miss the big show but, instead, he falls in love with the ranger, discovering that he is gay in the process. Carlton effectively milks the humor in his role with quicksilver turns from blustering to conniving, and so on; most of the rest of the cast has one note to play per character. For instance, Andrew Phelps is good at projecting a sweetly stupid persona as the love-struck Colt, but there isn't anything else to the role. Judy Kranz is shrill as Aunt Rosie. John Lavin as Ranger Rick looks great, can act a little, and can't sing at all. You get the idea.
There is a bit of whimsy in the presentation of Lightning, played by "Winnie the Wonder Horse" (two actors in a horse costume), but it's revealing that the horse never has matching "horseshoes" except in his dance number. That same lack of attention to detail consistently throws this show out of its saddle, despite colorful set designs by Sam Sommer and playful costume designs by Tom Claypool.