If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
This might as well be the mantra of Tucson's wildly successful Gaslight Theatre, a one-stop shop for over-the-top silliness masquerading as a play; the happy rhythms of a rambunctious band; bottomless baskets of free popcorn (subtly symbolic of the corn that is Gaslight's onstage fare?); the nonstop energy of talented players who seem to be having as much fun as the audience; and a full restaurant menu where there's something for everybody. In short, it's a rip-roaring evening of entertainment for all ages—and one of the best bargains in town.
For 35 years, the Gaslight has taken a simple idea—bad guys are taking advantage of good guys who are in need of heroic guys who always come to the rescue—and, with a little creative pilfering, placed this formulaic adventure within settings that shamelessly echo familiar stories. There have been a couple of versions of Gnatman, an intergalactic adventure called Space Wars, The Ballad of Two-Gun McGraw—you get the idea.
To welcome the new year, the Gaslight is presenting The Two Amigos, in which bad guys are taking advantage of good guys—well, you know. Here, the setting is Santa Feliz, a sleepy Mexican town run by the corrupt Comandante Maximo (Armen Dirtadian), who, with his right-hand buffoon—er, man, Lt. Gonzales (David Orley), threatens all who cross him with being sent "to my stinkin' dungeon." (This phrase, with the "stinkin'" sounding more like "steeeeek-nnnnn," is oft-repeated, with the audience completing the phrase.)
The good guys are represented by Señor Bautista (Charlie Hall) and his daughter Augelita (Sarah Vanek), who tick off the comandante because—well, because they're honorable folks unwilling to bend to his will. The heroes are—can you guess?—the Two Amigos, Renaldo (Todd Thompson) and Paco (Mike Yarema). They are entertainers (from the U.S., it would seem, since they have no accent) hired to perform at the comandante's fiesta, but they meet with displeasure and are fired. But Renaldo, who has fallen for Augelita, decides to right the wrongs being perpetrated in Santa Feliz. He assumes a disguise, looking very much like a Zorro-type creature; with Paco, they bring the comandante to justice.
The specifics of the story are barely plausible, but they don't need to be. What is important is that once the story is set in motion, it charges like a high-speed train—a revved-up rhythm in which we are instantly and constantly engaged. This pace is absolutely necessary, and the players never let up, just as they nail the timing that this hyper-silly comedy requires.
Just because the battle between good and evil is being played out before our eyes, that doesn't mean that the good and bad guys can't drop their hostilities and break into song every few minutes. So they do, raiding familiar tunes and revising the lyrics with a silly sensibility. I suppose one could still count his life fulfilled without hearing a paean to huevos rancheros sung to the tune of "La Bamba," but if the chance presents itself, why wouldn't one grab the opportunity?
The literary, um, brains behind the script and lyric reinvention is Peter Van Slyke, who has been doing this gig for quite a while and knows the territory well. He also directs the shows, and with the help of work by some practiced players, the mighty musical direction of Linda Ackermann, and the delightful visual settings and clever low-tech effects by set designer Tom Benson, Van Slyke manages to synthesize a total entertainment package. Besides the impressive scene-painting, Benson treats us to galloping horses bouncing across an ever-shifting landscape, gunshots that leave bullet holes in adobe walls, and a burning hacienda with charred lodge poles crashing down around a pair of lovers. Renee Cloutier's costumes are fine, and lighting designer David Darland makes sure we can see it all.
The kids will giggle with glee at all of the over-the-top shenanigans, and the adults will chortle when they recognize the "pun-ishment" to which they are being subjected. No, it's not high-class theater, but it is well-done entertainment, true to its historic roots in melodrama.
But wait—there's more!
After each play, the troupe regroups and bursts forth with a musical variety show. This time, the olio features a Gaslight take on the granddaddy of country-music shows, the Grand Ole Opry. This "Grand Old Opry"—these Gaslight guys know how to avoid copyright infringement—features a bountifully, blondly coiffed Porter Wagoner (Orley); the "how-dee" honey, Minnie Pearl (Vanek); and Tammy Wynette impersonator Maria Alburtus, whose flexible lips are hugely impressive. There's a guys' quartet singing a rendition of "Flowers on the Wall," and Dirtadian impersonating Tennessee Ernie Ford and singing "Sixteen Tons." The facility with which these players transition from one type of fun to another is a treat to watch. So is Ackermann's band, whose contribution to the Gaslight fun can't be underestimated. Ackermann on piano, Blake Matthies on bass and guitar, and Jon Westfall on drums drive the energy of the evening.
The Two Amigos is standard Gaslight fare—and that's a very good thing. In fact, it could be argued that they have set the standard for full-out family entertainment in Tucson, and excel at maintaining that standard.