Turn It Up

The talent, hard work of the Invisible Theatre cast overcomes the weak songs and plotless scenery of 'Route 66'

Roger Bean's Route 66: A Musical Journey Down the Mother Road is, indeed, very much like a trip along America's most fabled highway. Several interesting if odd attractions punctuate stretches of mundane scenery. Whether you'll enjoy the trip depends largely on the quality of your traveling companions.

I'd happily climb into a van and hit the road with the cast of Invisible Theatre's production. Walter Belcher, Jay C. Cotner, David R. Fanning and Mickey Nugent can liven up even the dullest stretch of road, and they do it without daredevil antics.

The foursome first appears in tan, 1940s gas-station uniforms, singing the old Texaco jingle. Before long, they're off on a trip tracing Route 66 in song, pulling out of the garage in Chicago, quickly putting the Midwest in their rear-view mirror, and swinging across the tops of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona on the way to a Beach Boys medley at road's end in Los Angeles. Along the way, they cruise through a set of truck-driver songs and contend with the highway patrol and a certain little old lady from Pasadena. During their brief offstage rest stops, we see slides of 1950s and '60s Chevys and Ramblers, and hear recordings of old radio commercials for cars with fins and long-forgotten brands of gasoline.

The song order is determined, roughly, by geography; it follows the highway, with plenty of more-generic road songs filling the miles between towns lucky enough to be immortalized in some lyric. Otherwise, there's no plot, no dialog and nothing to hold the show together beyond the basic concept.

Every couple of seasons, Arizona Theatre Company trots out a show like this, and I usually complain that it's a waste of the company's resources and would be better presented in a cabaret setting. I'd surely complain if ATC took Route 66 for a spin in the Temple of Music and Art. But somehow, the show works well in the far more intimate environs of Invisible Theatre. There's a much more direct connection between performers and audience, a physical proximity that lets you see the sweat sheeting down Fanning's face by evening's end, reminding you that these guys are working hard to entertain you. At a greater distance, the same performance would probably seem slick and impersonal, and it would be all too easy to dwell on the show's weaknesses.

Those weaknesses, besides the flimsy revue format, include a lot of old songs that are now forgotten--justifiably so. For every enduring classic like "King of the Road," there are three tunes that just don't get good mileage anymore.

But the cast members, together with musicians Khris Dodge and Dave Rodenkirch, polish up each car tune and take it out for a spin with the pride and joy of an owner of a '64 Mustang. Belcher, the co-director (with Susan Claassen) and co-choreographer (with Stacy Johnson), sets the standard for infectious fun in his first solo number, "Let's Go for a Ride." Belcher manages to draw you straight into his performance even though he's singing a song that couldn't survive the demise of the 1950s doo-wop group that made it briefly famous. Similarly, Nugent makes the most of the novelty song "Rolaids, Doan's Pills and Preparation H," a paltry item to represent the career of Dave Dudley, the father of truck-driving country music.

Sometimes, though, music, staging and performance all come together to perfection. Here, "The Long Tall Texan" is a masterpiece of queer camp, with Fanning decked out in white-fur chaps and an equally furry 10-gallon hat that somebody supersized. He cocks his stick pony just so and is fey enough to generate hilarity without doing anything really offensive. Now, that's talent.

Cotner easily holds his own in this company, although it's hard to take him seriously when he removes his hat; his short bangs make him look too much like Jim Carrey in Dumb & Dumber, and that's somebody you just don't want behind the wheel.

This isn't Shakespeare, and it's not even Kerouac, but Route 66 is revved up to good entertainment at Invisible Theatre. It's a production that redefines the term "road show."

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