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20 Jan 2020

The Old West Gone Gay: Desert Rose Prioritizes Laughs and Physiques Over Singing Talent and Plot for New Musical 'Those Musclebound Cowboys'

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A scene from Those Musclebound Cowboys From Snake Pit Gulch. A scene from Those Musclebound Cowboys From Snake Pit Gulch.

Yee haw, little dogies! If’n you’re hankering for a Western-flavored good time, slap on yer best bib and tucker, and mosey on down to the Desert Rose Playhouse! Those Musclebound Cowboys From Snake Pit Gulch are a-waitin’ on you, buckaroos!

The sold-out house of patrons for the opening weekend of this world premiere sashayed into the theater in high-falutin’ denim, Stetsons and boots. The mood is immediately set by the piped-in sounds of great country Western music from stars like Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.

Interestingly, the stage and house at DRP have been completely reimagined for this production. The now-sprawling stage area features different levels that include a saloon, a set of stairs and even a hoosegow. (That’s “jail” to you whippersnappers.) A dividing curtain, which can be drawn across the stage at an angle, creates a backdrop that hosts small scenes. The reason for this is explained by playwright Andy Halliday in the printed program: The play was not originally envisioned like this; it was “cut down” for the DRP production, which changed the timing. Each scene transitions into the next without pause—which is actually how Shakespearean plays were originally enacted. This speeds up the play, and the flow allows the entire show to be filled with mini-scenes that keep the action moving nicely.

So here’s the premise: What if the Old West was … all gay? Why not? In this imaginary town of Snake Pit Gulch, the writer has mixed the classic stereotypes of the Drunken Sherriff, the Sneaky Villain, the Fresh and Innocent Farm Boys, the Young Troublemaker, and so on—and then thrown in a visiting Femme Fatale. It’s a recipe for pure melodrama. But gay, as one may expect from the valley’s only LGBTQ playhouse.

And it’s a musical—with lyrics by CJ Critt and music by Frank Schiro. The musical director is hardworking Jaci Davis—in an outrageous mustache and bowler hat—who not only serves as the accompanist for all the songs, but even doubles as the bartender in one scene! Alas, the mic-ed sound of the keyboard sometimes overpowers the singers.

It doesn’t take long for the audience to realize that only a couple of the members of the enthusiastic seven-man cast are trained singers. Well … can you imagine doing the casting for this play? With a title like this one, the crucial emphasis was obviously on musculature rather than vocal skills. So the singing voices are mostly not … operatic, let’s say.

Kai Brothers plays Sam Cantrell, a naïve farm boy. Brothers is an actor who knows how to use his bright eyes to his advantage, and seems at home in this role. His big brother, Evan Cantrell, is played by Clay Sales, a professional dancer and bodybuilder (those quads!) with a degree in computer science—go figure—whose flawless skin and shaven head drew much approval from the audience. The boys head off to Snake Pit Gulch, where they meet such characters as the sheriff called Wheezy, played by Tom Warrick. Warrick plays Wheezy as an alcoholic who vows to quit drinking. The goal is to solve the mystery of a vanished deed to a gold mine—and the next time we see him, he is suffering a ghastly case of alcohol withdrawals. Warrick is a rare breed—an actor whose innate confidence allows him to play silly comedy, and who is fearless about appearing ridiculous. That’s a gift.

“Topeka” is the nickname of another of the town’s characters, played by Rob Rota. He is very believable as a flirt and a troublemaker who claims to have been raised by wolves and who rationalizes his promiscuity on the basis that he has never experienced true love. He gets to do a song with lots of double entendres. Michael Pacas devours the role of Big Jack Slade, the mandatory villain, although he modifies the usual nastiness of such roles and instead plays him as more of a slick, crooked businessman—in superbly toned shape. Mark Fearnow plays Scully Jones, a character who keeps popping up unexpectedly, along with a couple of other roles. Fearnow quickly establishes himself as a professional singer; his versatility and powerful, beautifully managed voice are refreshing.

But it’s Anthony Nannini who dominates the show. He plays Daisy LaFleur, a Pinkerton detective who goes undercover—in drag, of course. Wearing the most fantastic huge-skirted gowns and thigh-high boots, he switches hair colors from a ratty red to a prettily coiffed blonde, and handles his costumes smoothly. With his signature athleticism, Nannini bounces and leaps amazingly around the stage, and survives countless pratfalls on cue.

The play is directed and choreographed by Robbie Wayne, and much is made of the Gay Rodeo Association lending items and props to this play—including, on opening night, an actual horse! The legendary Phil Murphy again lends his considerable skills to the lighting design, cleverly creating smooth transitions between scenes. Matt Torres is the costume designer, deftly handling a multitude of enormous challenges—mostly decisions about the amount of skin shown.

The story is at times a bit confusing, but that doesn’t slow anybody down. There are misunderstandings and switches in the relationships—but it’s not about the plot, because that’s not what you came for. You came to laugh and see them thar muscles, right? You won’t be disappointed.

As one of the characters exclaims: Holy corn pone!

Those Musclebound Cowboys From Snake Pit Gulch is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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