Theater Review: BRONCO BILLY – THE MUSICAL (World Premiere at Skylight Theatre)

by Tony Frankel on June 3, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles

BILLY BOY OH BOY

Meet Billy, an ex-con sharpshooter who is living his American Dream in 1979. This optimistic showman, romantic, and visionary has encouraged a fraternity of castaways — a Native American and his wife, a car thief, an ex-nurse, an erstwhile bank teller — to join him as entertainers in a troupe about 1/24 the size of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. After five years of traveling, the inadequate living from playing perky pardners is putting a strain on this family of friends.

On the road to making it big at an America’s Got Talent-type show in Hollywood, Billy recruits as his new assistant Antoinette Lilly. Turns out this feisty heiress of a chocolate-bar company is on the lam from her milquetoast husband, her sexy, devious stepmom, and family lawyer — all of whom are conspiring to have Lilly axed by a hired assassin so that mom inherits the cash from her newly deceased husband. As Lilly and Billy find love, and profits increase from Bronco Billy’s show, the farcical killer quartet closes in.

For a brand new, good-time, offbeat musical to come swinging out of the gate with a great story and this much charm is a shocker. That it has moments of tenderness and hilarity is a plus. That it has a large cast with talent on steroids is infectious. That we leave with a smile — given the show’s issues — is a miracle. But this is one of those outings with so much heart and such sterling production values — the set, the band, the sound, the choreography — that it keeps us from concentrating on the project’s deficiencies: the confusing context; the uneven tone; and the non-character-defining, inconsequential, pedestrian songs that wear thin.

Based on his 1980 screenplay for the Clint Eastwood film Bronco Billy, bookwriter Dennis Hackin rethought the storyline, while songs were added by Chip Rosenbloom and John Torres (with additional lyrics by Michele Brourman). The idea of this hokey traveling show and a millionairess on the run actually works. But the context is amiss. In the opening number, “Ride with Us,” ringmaster Doc (the ex-nurse) introduces us to Billy’s band, but it’s tough to get on board when we don’t know who they are, where they are, and why we should care — and having her hobble around with a cane the entire show is unnecessary, especially given we don’t know why Doc’s limping.

I’m also not sold as to the disco-era context. With some terrific film-noirish dialogue and a subplot about returning from war, this screams to take place after WWII when Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and the American West were in every kid’s dreams, but the Wild West Show was starting to go the way of, well, the myth of the Wild West itself. The style didn’t seem to inspire Ann Closs Farley either: as fun as her costumes were, they looked more like thrift-store chic than authentic 70s’ outfits (and were the fake-looking wigs weird on purpose?). And since the screwball antics of the fortune-hunting family were more reminiscent of Cukor comedies than Laugh-In, a different era makes sense.

Most disappointing are the songs themselves: they’re awfully superficial for the most part, with a deplorable lack of character-building and mood-setting lyrics, (but perfectly rhymed, thank you!); after a while, the simplistic Country-Westernish pop and attempt at disco may have diverted at times, but they didn’t stick, and sometimes even slowed down the show. (The catchy “Dreamers” which opened the second act showed the great tunes the team is capable of.) The songs simply need to be more idiosyncratic.

Perhaps the contextual issue is why director Hunter Bird had farcical tones in one scene and utter seriousness in another; it may have been the director’s intent, but it comes off like he didn’t know which choice to make. And there were simply too many misses at strong physical comedy, even as the staging could be awesome (those knife gags!) on John Iacovelli’s imaginative, multi-purpose set of transmogrifying traveling crates.

As it stands, Bronco Billy The Musical will no doubt leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. The winning Eric B. Anthony plays Billy with smooth sincerity; he’s affable, sweet, a boffo dancer, and sexy as all get-out. And what a trouper: at last Saturday’s matinee, he was clearly hoarse but powered his way through to the end (and, really, this guy needs more dances).

There isn’t a weak link in this 14-member cast, which wails David O’s fantastic arrangements and harmonies and nails Janet Roston’s thrilling, captivating, clever choreography, slathering spectators with enough joy to electrify Disneyland. Music Director Anthony Lucca’s five-piece band was smokin’-hot, and used for a very funny bit. The show really took off whenever we were treated to the slow-burn, double-take comedic chops that Pat Towne brought to the character of gun-for-hire Sinclair St. Clair (my new favorite musical name). I also couldn’t stop watching Marc Cardiff as the double-dealing lawyer — he’s so coy about villainy.

I hope this fun show becomes a great one if they can make it less Branson and more Broadway. It’s wholly original. The American West, The American Dream, and The American Experience rolled into a rollicking musical comedy is just what we need.

The cast includes Amanda Leigh Jerry, Michelle Azar, Benai Boyd, Randy Charleville, Fatima El-Bashir, Kyle Frattini, Bella Hicks, Chris M. Kauffmann, Anthony Marciona, Jamie Mills, and Michael Uribes.

photos by Ed Krieger

Bronco Billy – The Musical
Skylight Theatre, 1816 1/2 North Vermont Ave.
Fri & Sat at 8:30; Sat & Sun at 2
ends on June 30, 2019
for tickets, call 866.811.4111 or visit Skylight

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Briana Senour June 8, 2019 at 8:35 pm

This review is shockingly insensitive!! Your comments about Doc “Having her hobble around with a cane the entire show is unnecessary.” It must be nice to be so able bodied that one doesn’t even have to consider that the ACTOR, Not the character, uses the cane. I personally know this amazing and talented actor, and she has a disability. Her courage and resolve to continue her career and her passion is admirable, unlike your ability shaming. Your poor judgment and insensitivity leave this review unreliable. And by the way, the show was super fun and I had an amazing time. Go see this show and don’t bother with this guy’s opinion anymore!

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Tony Frankel June 9, 2019 at 12:47 pm

Dear Briana:

You forgot to add the second half of my sentence: “especially given we don’t know why Doc’s limping.” You DO know I was at the theater, right? And that theater is make-believe, right? So when I see a musical that involves a character who has been to Vietnam, I assume that the actress has invented the limping as a character choice. But sometimes it distracted during dance numbers and called attention to itself. So I wondered, why have that choice in the play. That’s all. No shaming. Nothing.

Now, what are we going to do when folks like you are insensitive to me or shame me for simply writing what I saw? Let’s just call it fascism until this PC movement proves itself otherwise.

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