Delightfully Dorky

Gaslight Theatre heads back to the Old West with 'The Belle of Tombstone.'

Three mustache-twirling villains are out to give an honest miner the shaft. Will a handsome new marshal's efforts to stop them pan out? And can he stake a romantic claim on a beautiful saloon singer?

Of course. Justice and love always triumph at the Gaslight Theatre, which has just revived its 1999 comic melodrama The Belle of Tombstone.

Gaslight got its start 27 years ago with Western melodrama spoofs; over the years, it's branched out to science fiction, medieval adventures, Indiana Jones-style escapades and comic-book rip-offs. But Old West action has always provided Gaslight's most satisfying fare; there's less pressure to mock contemporary pop culture, the satire is a little less arch, and all the cast and crew members seem a little more able to relax and have simple, innocent fun with their archetypal characters and stock plot devices.

As usual, this show is written and directed by Peter Van Slyke, and features a lot of familiar faces on stage: Armen Dirtadian as Marshal Ned Wingate; Deborah Klingenfus as his lost love, Patsy Moran, the "Prairie Nightingale"; Betsy Kruse, tall and wry as Belle, owner of Tombstone's Silver Dollar Saloon; James Gooden as bartender and hapless miner Buckskin Frank; Dan Gunther as suave but nefarious Dapper Jack Healy; Dave Orley as his dopey henchman, Curly Bill; Joe Cooper as volatile gunslinger Johnny Ringo; and Sarah Vanek as Ringo's Mexican spitfire girlfriend, Margarita. (The cast shuffles around a bit and includes different actors for some performances.)

And the story? Well, it's all up there in the first three sentences. By Gaslight standards, this plot is remarkably unconvoluted. No, I'll go further--it actually makes sense. And as always, the action is punctuated by songs, this time fairly straightforward renditions of old Western and country-Western favorites, all backed by a tireless trio led by Lisa Otey.

One of the pleasures of a Gaslight show is seeing how the director and the scenic designer--in this case, Tom Benson--pull off ambitious set pieces that manage to be both highly effective and delightfully dorky. You can usually expect people to be riding fake horses in place (in one scene, the horses' manes look just like their riders' hairdos) while the backdrop scrolls to suggest movement. Belle of Tombstone gives us that, and more: a stagecoach robbery, a jailbreak, a cattle rustle and even two different mining accidents.

It's only a matter of time before these people take on Lord of the Rings. At this minute, Benson is probably out shopping for used mümakil hide.

Belle of Tombstone gets off to a slightly slow start; the exposition seems a little earnest. But soon, the show surrenders to sheer silliness. A guitar drops from the sky as Ned rides through the desert, singing a ballad; the bad guys pull maracas out of nowhere to back a rendition of "South of the Border"; Patsy sings the words "while the moon shines down from above" while turning and flipping up her skirt; and as Ringo, Cooper does some fancy shooting and twirling, but never properly gets his guns back in their holsters. (Cooper is notorious for needling and cracking up his fellow performers; last Sunday afternoon, his primary target was Dirtadian, whose defensive ad libs held their own.)

Gaslight shows always conclude with an unrelated olio, a sequence of musical numbers and blackout jokes, vaudeville style. This time, it's supposed to be a Grand Ole Opry broadcast, featuring the likes of Porter Wagoner (Gooden), Dolly Parton (Vanek), Patsy Cline (Kruse), Tennessee Ernie Ford (Dirtadian), Minnie Pearl (Klingenfus), Waylon Jennings (Orley), Willie Nelson (Cooper) and Johnny Cash (Gunther). They all get the look right, but only Vanek produces a convincing vocal impersonation of her character. Still, the sequence is fun, heavy on the music and light on the bad jokes.

In short, it's all classic Gaslight fare, and probably a more appropriate place to take granny and the kids than the Sex Workers' Art Show tour.

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