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Horse Play 

Gaslight takes on Western melodrama--or something--with 'The Ballad of Two-Gun McGraw'

Gaslight Theatre thrives on musical spoofs of various brands of genre fiction, but right now, it's returning to its late-1970s roots in Western melodrama. The latest bit of horseplay is called The Ballad of Two-Gun McGraw, and it's everything this sort of show should be, if you can figure out what that is.

McGraw is a Texas marshal who has come to clean up a little town called San Pecos. Seems that the local boss, Jack Dagger, is sending his henchmen out to do whatever it takes to bankrupt a ranch owned by Miss Melody Carpenter. If they can do this, whether by stealing her payroll or rustling her cattle, Dagger can take control of the spread at a deep discount. Luckily, Two-Gun saves the day, after various characters throw roadblocks into the action like the songs "Ace in the Hole, "Long Tall Texan" and "Yellow Rose of Texas." At one point, the audience spontaneously turns "Happy Trails" into a sing-along.

If you're new to the Gaslight world, you need to be warned that audience participation is expected. We must cheer the hero's taglines, and we must boo the villains. (Yes, villains, plural; the hero is almost always outnumbered.) At one point last weekend, Armen Dirtadian, as the nasty Jack Dagger, wasn't eliciting a sufficient audience response, so he quipped, "Go ahead, you can say it. That's what I get paid for, anyway." Dagger's chief henchman, Laredo, even gradually gets the audience to save him the trouble of saying his own tagline.

A century ago, big Broadway musicals put real horses on treadmills to simulate cavalry charges as scenery whizzed by in the background, and Gaslight usually offers its low-tech version of that effect. This time, the actors are scooting around in contraptions that look and operate more like bumper cars than steeds. ("What's the matter?" Dirtadian asks the snickering audience. "Haven't you ever seen a 56-year-old man ride a wooden horse?") Tom Benson's sets, as always, strike just the right compromise between inventiveness and hokiness, and Renee Cloutier's costumes are, as usual, carefully geared to each character and his or her degree of silliness.

But, really, it's the performers that most audience members focus on, and writer-director Peter Van Slyke has rounded up nine Gaslight regulars and turned them loose with just enough control to get them through the show coherently. That doesn't always happen at Gaslight, but this is one show that balances conventional plot and character requirements with the company's loony sense of abandon.

Dirtadian is a fine villain, abetted by Todd Thompson as Laredo; Thompson is turning into as much of a scene-stealer as Joe Cooper, here portraying a lesser henchman, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. David Orley is also quite funny as a big, dumb bad guy aptly named Scratchy.

Robert Shaw is smooth and handsome as Our Hero, and Deborah Klingenfus is as appealing as ever as the heroine. Sarah Vanek walks on the dark side as Delilah, the saloon owner in cahoots with Laredo; one of Vanek's great achievements is keeping a stern, straight face despite Thompson's antics. Mike Yarema and Tarreyn Van Slyke bring needed color to smaller good-guy roles.

At Gaslight, the women usually take the vocal honors, and they're no slouches here, but they've got greater competition than usual when the stage is packed with the likes of Dirtadian and Shaw. (Thompson, too, is a pretty good singer, but doesn't have much occasion to demonstrate that in this show.) Note that other performers rotate into the roles on some dates, so your results may vary, but probably not by much.

All in all, Two-Gun McGraw is one of Van Slyke's better efforts, and the performance is full of good energy, including that coming from the little band led by pianist Linda Ackermann. And for once, the postscript olio acts are somewhat thematically related to the main show; they're a takeoff on the Grand Ole Opry. (Presumably, Gaslight carefully prints and says "Old" rather than the correct "Ole" to skirt trademark and copyright problems.) Perhaps too many of the participants look like refugees from Dogpatch, but the blackouts and old vaudeville jokes remain funny (if corny); Joe Cooper manages to look like Willie Nelson without even trying hard; and the songs are performed quite well--especially the two in which Shaw does a spot-on Johnny Cash impersonation.

Perhaps Shaw could spin this off into an alternative to his monthly Elvis concerts: As Gaslight does with its current show, Shaw might as well capitalize on what he can do very well.

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