Tumacho Is a Country-Western Elementary School Pageant for Adults
Ethan Lipton's musical play performs off-Broadway with an all-star cast.
Following a sweet little ditty that could easily lead a PBS children's show, a chorus of cacti welcomes us to Tumacho, Ethan Lipton's musical play that is currently receiving a return engagement with Clubbed Thumb at the Connelly Theater, following a 2016 debut in that company's Summerworks program. If you're a lover of goofy theater for goofiness' sake, you're going to have a great time.
The title (which is bound to make Spanish speakers immediately think of raunchy sex) refers to an insatiable demon that returns intermittently to inhabit the body of someone living in a sclerotic little town in the eternal Old West. Could it be saloon keeper Alice (Layla Khoshnoudi)? What about Doc Alonzo (Gibson Frazier)? Might it be the villainous Bill (Andrew Garman) or the puritanical Prudence (Randy Danson)? Cowgirl Catalina (Phillipa Soo channeling Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown) isn't sticking around to find out. She rides out to the Hacienda inhabited by Clement (Chinaza Uche) and seems perfectly happy there. But when Mayor Evans (John Ellison Conlee) pleads with her to return and fight the demon, will she listen?
If the supernatural element of Tumacho excites you, know that Charmed or Buffy this is not. Brimming with dramatic non sequiturs and inoffensive humor, Tumacho ambles along for 90 minutes, regularly stopping to smell the flowers and tell a dad joke: Rather than a "ne'er-do-well," black-hatted Bill likes to think of himself as a "do-do-well."
"Every day when I wake up, I have a cup of coffee, and then I do-do well," he proudly announces, as the other cast members titter from behind a swinging saloon door. It all feels like a sketch written for A Prairie Home Companion, the thin premise of which has been stretched beyond all reason.
Lipton has dealt in such public radio-ready fare, most recently in The Outer Space. While I was generally charmed by the mixture of imagination and memoir in that cabaret piece, I was less thrilled with Tumacho, a show that seems entirely too amused with itself to ever be truly amusing to others. At the risk of sounding like a grouch, I'll admit that I can count the number of times I laughed during Tumacho on one hand.
Lipton's toe-tapping country-western songs provide brief respite from the aggressive silliness, and some of them even allow this top-notch cast to show off: Soo performs an entire song as if she has a swollen tongue, and we can still understand every syllable — that's skill!
But the most impressive performance of the show comes from Matthew Dean Marsh, the one-man band who sits at the side of the stage and provides all of the musical accompaniment and sound effects. Peering through a mirror mounted over his upright piano, he watches the stage action and enriches it with sound, like a particularly attentive teaching artist.
Director Leigh Silverman emphasizes that scholastic vibe with a production that wouldn't look out of place in an elementary school auditorium. David Zinn's set conjures a knockoff John Wayne movie, while a glittering sign for the Hacienda plasters over a technical challenge with razzle-dazzle. Anita Yavich and Devario D. Simmons's costumes veer from rodeo to lunatic asylum in the later scenes, which sees everyone in full-body underwear. Raphael Mishler's props and puppets are the most memorable design element, from the tiny puppet stage that indicates a long horseback ride over the mountains to the superfluous menagerie that inexplicably parades across the stage at the end. It's the kind of thing you would find downright adorable if your kid was in it. But, of course, these are all adult members of Actors' Equity.
And should that matter? Despite being a tall man with a wild red beard, Andy Grotelueschen (who plays a character named "Chappy") has the irrepressible smile of a 7-year-old who has just won his first speaking part in the school play. His joy is just so genuine that it's hard not to smile back, and momentarily feel what it must be like to be performing in this unapologetically weird show — which seems to be a lot more fun to do than it is to behold.