It doesn't take long for the guns to start blazin' and the puns to start pleasin' in the Gaslight Theatre's The Belle of Tombstone, a show that, considering the Gaslight building's general décor, could be called a piece of environmental theater.
But let's not. Let's just call it a busy, boisterous, beat-em-up, bad guys versus good guys tale of the Wild West done in the over-amped and under-subtle style of Gaslight's trademark melodrama we have come to know and love.
And this is a good one. It seems like the cast is bigger than usual, but I think that's maybe because there are a lot of larger group scenes. Or maybe it's because there is a whole gang of characters representing the bad guys. Whatever. The result is that there is silliness in spades and soarin' voices in songs, which make for a very entertaining experience as long as you know what you're getting yourself into. And even highfalutin snobby folks would be hard pressed to stifle smiles and choke back laughter when gettin' a load of this good-natured, well-put-together wacky Western.
Tall, dark and evil Jack Diamond (Armen Dirtadian) enlists Johnny Ringo (Dave Fanning) to assist him in taking back what he thought was the bogus mine he had sold to miner Frank (Jake Chapman) when it turns out the mine is just a-bustin' with silver. Ringo enlists Curly Bill (David Orley), Tex (Todd Thompson) and San Pedro Sam (Joe Cooper)—the Three Stooges of cowpokes—to help him.
This doesn't sit well with Belle, proprietress of the Silver Dollar Saloon (Heather Stricker) and her saucy sidekick Margarita (Janée Page). But U.S. Marshal Ned Wingate (Mike Yarema), who has made himself scarce in these parts of late, shows up just in time to try to bring a sense of right and justice to the whole affair, while running into former girlfriend Patsy Moran (Tarreyn Van Slyke), who also finds herself back in Tombstone after an absence.
As is the norm at the Gaslight, writer/director Peter Van Slyke's story is told in the broadest possible style, complete with sight gags and groan-worthy jokes, while hanging on the thinnest thread of plausibility. Audience participation is encouraged. Actors crack each other up—intentionally or not—and we love being part of the joke.
I suppose it should be pointed out that the romantic/love interest in this script is as thin as a worn-out saddle blanket. Matchmaking is part of the Gaslight formula, so I guess some such storyline is a requirement. But this one is way underdeveloped and, frankly, unnecessary. They get a romantic song out of it, but other than that it's pretty much a bust.
Without the song and dance, marshaled by musical director Linda Ackermann and choreographer Katherine Byrnes, there would really be no gen-u-ine Gaslight experience, and this is especially true of The Belle of Tombstone. The actor/singers can belt out a tune, sing a sweet ditty or harmonize happily, seemingly without effort. But we know that it takes talent and skill to deliver as they do. Accompanied by fine musicians in the band—Lisa Otey on piano, Mitzi Cowell on bass and Jon Westfall on drums—the musical numbers are done well and lift the evening's entertainment from fun to downright impressive.
Actually, all the elements of theater production are handled well. Tom Benson's sets featuring his highly skilled scenic painting are wonderful. And, yes, there are multiple sets, which are changed flawlessly and offer countless clever inclusions, such as the Angry Birds stuffed animals nesting in the saguaros. And there are horses galloping and a wildly bucking stagecoach and all manner of low-tech special effects that multiply both the imaginative and fun factors.
From a technical perspective, Gaslight shows are quite complex, requiring skillful contributions from capable costume designer Renee Cloutier, lighting designer David Darland and a very sharp running crew.
Of course, your entertainment dollars always get stretched at Gaslight with the show-after-the-show, the variety revue they call the olio. It changes with each show, and this time it features country music tunes sung by your favorite impersonators, and redneck jokes corny enough to supplement the fall harvest.
Fanning's Garth Brooks starts the revue with the reminder that he's got friends in less than lofty places (which might include the Gaslight). Joe Cooper's Larry the Cable Guy and Yarema's Jeff Foxworthy share master-of-ceremonies duties, while Tarreyn Van Slyke's Patsy Cline and Thompson's Billy Ray Cyrus (with a wig that won't quite cooperate) deliver familiar tunes. Striker's Dolly Parton impresses patrons as she strolls through the audience in all her feminine sumptuousness, and Cooper's Willie Nelson simply slays.
For some silly but witty storytelling and toe-tapping, musical frolicking, you generally can't go wrong at the Gaslight. The Belle of Tombstone is a prime example of why its tried and true formula rarely misses the mark.