Jonathan Beck Reed and Julie Johnson in Roadside(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Jonathan Beck Reed and Julie Johnson in Roadside
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Apparently, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt work well under pressure. They tinkered with The Fantasticks for ages until the money to produce it came in, at which point they hammered out a workable draft in three weeks. Roadside, however--their "new musical" at the York Theater--has been on their workbench for over 50 years. They began it as undergrads at the University of Texas, returned to it in the mid-1950s, put it away again, and completed it only recently. As musical gestations go, then, this one is unusually leisurely. And the sad truth is, it shows. The Fantasticks, cobbled together in haste, is a small masterpiece; as for Roadside, someone left the cake out in the rain.

Based on a short-lived play of the same name by the prolific Lynn Riggs (whose Green Grow the Lilacs was the basis for Oklahoma!), Roadside boasts a handsome pedigree and several pleasingly familiar elements. As in Lilacs (or Oklahoma!), we're in Oklahoma territory on the eve of statehood, where the nearest town of any size is Claremore and the farmer and the cowman should be friends, but aren't. "The fences are up," cautions the sheriff, "the cattle days are gone." Locals don't say "you are," they say "yew air" (when they remember to; the accents come and go), and the horizon is "fur" away.

Not so fur away are the ghosts of musicals past. The black-box York is bedecked with carnival lights, tent poles, canvas, and hand-lettered ads for "Dixie Pig Bar-B-Q" and "Miss Molly Harris, Piano Lessons." Pap Raider (G.W. Bailey), a stock-type, grizzled old coot, skips out and launches into "Uncle Billy's Travelin' Family Show," introducing the other players and peddling Uncle Billy Popcorn. Within five minutes, Roadside has evoked not only Oklahoma! and The Fantasticks but also Paint Your Wagon, Carnival, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Barnum.

From such an opening--lively and fun, if secondhand, and featuring some fine hell-raising from a four-piece rockabilly ensemble--you'd expect a show-within-a-show, or maybe a rangy tale of nomadic show folk in the Old West. But Roadside abruptly abandons those motifs, returning to them only intermittently and without explanation. It concentrates instead on the prosaic story of Hannie Raider (Julie Johnson), an itinerant lass who, like her sister-under-the-skin Laurey in Oklahoma!, can't make up her mind. Will she stay on the road or settle down? Will she wed Buzzey Hale, the dull, dutiful, local pig farmer, or hold out for something better? We don't know, and we don't care, because Roadside's characters are so casually drawn that we're well into Act II before we figure out whether we're supposed to like Buzzey or not. Meantime, the wild, drunken cowboy Texas (Jonathan Beck Reed) has wandered in from the fur horizon--or, really, from the authors' 110 in the Shade, where he was called Starbuck--and begun to press his suit for Hannie. We're not sure how to feel about him, either.

Texas, you see, is supposed to be brash and boastful and larger-than-life, like something out of a tall tale (the state, he confides, is "named after me") and his footloose, fancy-free style is meant to be irresistible. But in the person of Reed, he seems about as exotic and dangerous as an insurance salesman. Texas and Hannie spar much in the manner of Curley and Laurey: They keep falling in and out, in and out of love, and their romance is laced with sweet nothings like: "Why, I oughta jerk yer hind leg off and throw it in yer face!" But this is no well-thought-out courtship; it's bumper cars. The couple's emotional arc is like a Dow Jones graph, skittering randomly up and down, depending on which song is next. And while it's refreshing to see romantic leads in an old-fashioned musical who have a few miles on them, this pair fails to generate much heat. He's paunchy and light-voiced; she's plump and sassy, with a big contralto and a friendly Western twang. They seem like nice people, but mismatched, and they never convince us that they're each other's last, best chance. Nor are they helped by Jones' dialogue. HE: "You're crazy, wild and reckless. So am I." SHE: "I'm tired of dreamin' dreams that'll never come true." Has musical-comedy chat ever been more generic?

While the love story of Hannie and Texas toggles back and forth, click-clack, click-clack, we are offered a few musical diversions. The Ikes (Ryan Appleby and Steve Barcus)--who might be brothers or local ruffians or carnival performers or all of the above, it's never entirely clear--buck and wing amiably through "Lookin' at the Moon" and "My Little Prairie Flower." Upstanding church folk Neb and Miz Foster (Tom Flagg and Jennifer Allen, both mugging) sing amusingly of their "Peaceful Little Town." And poor, deluded Buzzey gets the one show-stopper, trying to convince us he is "Personality Plus," which he plainly is anything but. But Drew Scott Harris' choreography is unoriginal and his staging has the cast variously running around pointlessly, standing stiffly, or, for some reason, bending over and aiming their denim-covered butts at the audience. The script also dictates a lot of gun-waving--though, in a musical this mild and improbable, you know a firearm isn't even going to go off, much less pop anybody. The credibility threshold is pitched so low that, at one point, the jailed Texas escapes by simply kicking off a ball and chain and bending back the prison bars. All this while holding the last note of his big ballad.

Which brings us, thank goodness, to the music. Harvey Schmidt's melodies may or may not be off a dusty shelf, but he can write an attractive tune like nobody's business, then underpin it with the most beguiling harmonies this side of Richard Rodgers. Listen to the sinuous Tex-Mex rhythms of "Smellamagoody Perfume" or the easy lope of "Another Drunken Cowboy" or the pining, flatted-fifth vamp of the soaring title song; the man is a master, plain and simple. Tom Jones' lyrics are mostly functional and basic, disappointingly bereft of the extraordinary poetic imagery he fashioned for The Fantasticks. (You can't get much more basic than "Here am I / High and dry / What'm I gonna do?") But they're uncluttered and craftsmanlike, and they sit well on Schmidt's delectable lines.

Add Roadside, then, to the endless list of musicals whose scores outclass their books. Its music caresses, teases, smiles, often kicks up its cowboy boots and dances all over the stage. It will make for a prizeworthy CD, and it goes a long way toward making Roadside a likeable evening. But likeable, in this case, isn't precisely the same as good.