Jay O. Sanders in Lone Star Love(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jay O. Sanders in Lone Star Love
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Oh, how faces light up when people enter the John Houseman Theater and see a generous spread of chow. The vittles are for the audience of Lone Star Love, and the cast graciously serves its patrons. Cornbread, potato salad, carrots, little hot dogs, cookies, and lemonade make up the offering. It's a smart move: The musical's producers need all the good will they can get before their disappointing country western spoof of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor begins.

Why anyone would want to do a parody musical of this particular play is hard to fathom. Shakespeare, legend has it, wrote the original work to please Queen Elizabeth I, who so enjoyed the character of Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I that she asked to see a play in which her favorite comic figure fell in love. It's theorized that the play was written very quickly to meet a special performance deadline; among Shakespeare's works, this is a lesser comedy. And now it's one of our lesser musicals -- largely a victim of Shakespeare's ponderous plot, which should have been more freely adapted by John L. Haber. The show futher suffers from Jack Herrick's too often lifeless lyrics.

It's a shame that Lone Star Love is crippled by these two flaws because this production is a lot of fun in so many other ways. If Herrick's lyrics are a bore, his music is lively and engaging. Randy Skinner's choreography, while hardly groundbreaking, is commendable for its good-natured energy. But what really carries the show is its exceptional cast; from the small supporting parts to the leads, this musical gets great mileage out of its performers. There are times you will think they're in a production of Rumplestiltskin because, in front of your eyes, they almost turn straw into gold.

Haber begins his version of Shakespeare's tale at the end of the Civil War. Sergeant John Falstaff (Jay O. Sanders) is a drunken and cowardly member of the Confederate Army. He avoids a final battle in the Carolinas before accidentally killing his superior officer. Donning the dead man's cloak and hat, thereby becoming Colonel Falstaff, he flees to Texas with his three pals, Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym (otherwise known as The Red Clay Ramblers: Clay Buckner, Chris Frank, and the show's composer, Jack Herrick). After accidentally saving a ranch from a stampede, he is taken in by the cattlemen of Windsor, Texas, and he immediately begins to woo the wives of the town's two most prosperous ranchers. The plot follows Shakespeare's own quite faithfully, although we do not recall a yodeling cowboy in his play.

The supposed comedy comes in the form of the two wives making sport with Falstaff, putting him through all sorts of humiliations. Meanwhile, one of the husbands falls into a jealous rage, thinking that his wife is actually having an affair with Falstaff. How funny is this? Well, Hamlet is funnier. Das Barbecü, a country-western musical spoof that set the Ring Cycle in Texas, is far superior. And even last season's Johnny Guitar, with its deliciously over-the-top characters, had more going for it than Lone Star Love does.

Be that as it may, Sanders -- in a fat suit -- is delightful as Falstaff. The more he plays the character with a modern twist, the more winning he is. For instance, at the end of the first act, after he's dumped into a creek from a wash basket, he emerges muttering: "The union said no water! I'm not doing the second act!" Then he storms off the stage, followed by laughter. Sanders moves with fluid dexterity in the fat suit, and he sings with power and syncopated lust in one of the character's better songs, "Cold Cash."

Clarke Thorell and Julie Tolivar in Lone Star Love(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Clarke Thorell and Julie Tolivar in Lone Star Love
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Beth Leavel as Aggie Ford, the wife with whom Falstaff is supposed to be having trysts, is sensational as both a comedian and a singer; her thoroughly committed performance of a terrible power ballad titled "Texas Wind" is a testament to her talent. Gary Sandy as her wildly jealous husband, Frank Ford, delivers some clunkers with an impressive sense of fury. The Red Clay Ramblers get the best song in the show, "Hard Times." (If only the rest of the score had such artful lyrics!) Brandon Williams is endearing as the nerdy Abraham Slender, while Drew McVety is hilarious as the French Doctor Caius. And though Clarke Thorell does not impress as a yodeling cowboy, his dry self-introduction gets four big laughs -- which you'll appreciate because, in this show, the laughs are few and far between.

The pliable, playful set is by Derek McLane and the amusing, rough-and-tumble costumes are by Jane Greenwood. There are more than 20 players -- including six musicians -- in this large and expansive musical directed by Michael Bogdanov. But, unfortunately, the plot is what it is.