A few weeks ago, I saw a little musical at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) called Falsettos. That musical was promoted as being about family; and more importantly, being about the family that you make with the people around you. Well, folks, that musical has nothing on the musical I just saw, which truly is about the fact that the family that you make — and that cares about you — is much more family than the one created by birth or by marriage.
So what did I saw that make me say this? What musical did I enjoy so much that I’m thinking about getting tickets to see it again (something I rarely do; I think the last time was Astro Boy and the God of Comics at Sacred Fools)? The answer: Bronco Billy – The Musical at the Skylight Theatre (FB).
Going in, I had no idea what this show was about. I don’t go to movies; I had no knowledge of — and certainly hadn’t seen — the 1980 Clint Eastwood movie. All I had was an email from the publicist describing the show thusly:
The country’s going crazy; partisan politics, civil rights threatened, technology exploding. That’s right, it’s 1979! Somewhere in America’s heartland, with more heart than sense, Bronco Billy struggles to keep his traveling Wild West show alive. But when Billy and his ragtag troupe of misfits meet Antoinette, a Manhattan heiress on-the-run, the ride gets even wilder as she turns Billy’s world upside down.
For some reason, that description drew me in. That, and the following words from the book writer, Dennis Hackin (FB), who also did the original screenplay:
The show is about living your passion. About being part of a family even if you have to create your own. With some unexpected turns through love, villainy, show business, and lots of humor, Chip, John, and Michele have beautifully honored the book and enlightened the characters with their magical musical influences. All this, during a time when everyone could use a new upbeat musical.
As I said, going in I knew nothing about the movie. When I got home, I looked it up on Wikipedia. Other than some basic structure of the story, it appears that the musical did a fair amount of story adaptation for the stage. The movie actually sounds less interesting that the story in the musical. So kudos to the writing team for the rework: it resulted in an extremely enjoyable show.
By this point, you’re probaby wondering about the plot. It is the late 1970s, and Bronco Billy McCoy is a western entertainer barely surviving with a “Wild West Troupe” going from county fair to county fair. This troupe includes Doc, Lorraine and her husband Chief Big Eagle, Two Gun Lefty Lebow, and Lasso Leonard James. The group is hoping they can make it to Hollywood to get their big break by auditioning for a producer. Parallel to this, the founder of the Ollie the Owl Candy Bar Company dies. In a revised will, he leaves all his money to his daughter, Antoinette Lilly, pissing off his second wife, Constance. But the lawyer, Lipton, points out that there’s a loophole: If she doesn’t survive for 30 days, the bequest goes to the stepwife. After a failed attempt by Antoinette’s husband, John Arlington, to off her, Antoinette runs off into hiding — with Bronco Billy’s troupe. Still wanting the money, Constance and the Lawyer hire Sinclair St. Clair to do the “hit”. You can take it from there, with subsequent backstory reveals and the formation of a family with the Bronco BIlly troupe.
As I said, the plot is different in a number of key ways from the movie. I was glad that I hadn’t seen it beforehand.
This is a new musical, so some examination of these book and music is in order. The book is … a musical book. That means that some characters have their characterizations exaggerated for the stage. The description of the movie comes across as dark. This is light and fun. One or two jokes may be a bit strained (in particular, the recurring gag on the hit man’s name), but overall it is enjoyable. Don’t go in expecting a deep social commentary — this isn’t Dear Evan Hansen. Rather, go in expect to have fun with a story that is a bit more old fashioned: think Addams Family – The Musical or Hairspray. I think — in terms of the underlying message — this musical creates a family in a stronger, more “extended” way than Falsettos did. The real point of the story here is that family is built by those who care about each other and what happens to them. It make the point that your past is in the past; family is what you make today, going forward. And that’s a real good point to be making in this day and age, when families are being torn apart due to politics. Perhaps that’s why this show has a new resonance.
I found the music and lyrics to be strong. There were a lot of great upbeat numbers that made me long for a cast album. The opening number “Ride With Us” really sets the tone, as do numbers like “Our Time Is Now”, or “It’s Gonna Be Great”, or “Whopper of a Song”. But the ballads are very nice as well. But I just know what I like to listen to; I can’t judge whether those who obsess about rhyme or composition would be happy. I just enjoyed it and found myself humming the tunes as I left (which is rare). A testament to this show, and how much I liked the music, was that I just went and bought tickets to see it again. Directly from the theatre (albeit with a discount code). I’m squeezing it in during the Fringe Festival. That’s how much I enjoyed the book and the music of this show.
I think the key factor in assessing this show is this: not once did I have the urge to look at my program to see when an act was going to end. In fact, the end came too soon; I was enjoying it that much.
Under Hunter Bird (FB)’s direction, the cast was clearly having fun, and the brisk was pace… pace was brisk. The acting team seemed to be really into their inhabiting characters and bringing out the joy within. I’m never sure — hey, I’m just an audience member — what part is the director and what is the actor, but I do know the director can help make the magic happen. Even more significantly, it is the director that brings the vision to the show — and the artistic vision with the wooden boxes that miraculously unfolded to become the different pieces and places was just astounding. About the only directoral complaint I might have relates to the fight sequences, especially in the Musical Showdown. I don’t know the extent to which this was direction, vs Matt Franta (FB)’s fight choreography, but a number of the fight sequences were a bit too “stagey or fake” — they needed a bit more realism to make them “hit” (so to speak). Improved sound effects to augment them would help, but there needs to be more smacks in the smackeroos. But this, mind you, is a minor complaint.
This brings us to the performance team. In the lead positions were Eric B. Anthony (⭐FB) as Bronco Billy McCoy, and Amanda Leigh Jerry (FB) as Antoinette Lilly. Anthony was wonderful as Billy — personable, relatable, with a lovely lighter singing voice that is just beautiful in songs like “Just a Dance” and “Everything I Needed”. For those expecting a hard Clint Eastwood type, expect to have your mind blown. Think more of a Ben Vereen, which fits much more with what the West really was. I should note I’ve seen Anthony sing before — although not listed in his bio, I saw him in Five Guys Named Moe at Ebony Rep in 2017. Great then, great now. The real knockout, however, was Jerry. She had a personality and internal oomph that she broadcast to the back of the theatre, with a winning look and super strong singing voice. All of her numbers were great, especially “Get Me Out of Here” and her “Be Strong” numbers.
Billy’s troupe consisted of Benai Boyd (FB) as Doc; Fatima El-Bashir (FB) as Lorraine; Michael Uribes (FB) as Chief Big Eagle; Randy Charleville (FB) as Two Gun Lefty Lebow, and Kyle Frattini (FB) as Lasso Leonard James. I’d seen Boyd before in the Actors Co-Op production of Violet, and she blew me away then. She was even stronger here as Doc: she opens the show, she holds everything together, she has a knockout singing voice, and she is just fantastic to watch. Also strong was El-Basher (who I had seen in Empire) as Lorraine. Together with Boyd, they made a delightful duo opening the show, plus she is wonderful in “Look in the Mirror”. Further, she tap dances. I just love a good tap dance :-). Uribes (who, you guessed it, we saw before in Robber Bridegroom) was more of a taciturn character, although he did have a wonderful number in the opening of the second act. Charleville was strong as the clown, Lefty; and Frattini did a wonderful job of playing up the comic as Lasso Leonard. [Yes, and before you ask, we did see Frattini in Shrek at 5-Star, as well as in Beatniks at last year’s Fringe].
There’s a reason I mention this repeat talent: We have, here in Los Angeles, a remarkable talent pool. Actors who love the craft, and who are just astounding in what they do. Some are primarily stage actors, some are working their way there. Some work in TV and film. But they are all incredible talents, and it is just a joy to see the best of them pop up in shows at different venues throughout this great theatre city.
This brings us to the villains of the piece: Michelle Azar (⭐FB, FB) as Constance the Step-Mother; Marc Cardiff as the Lawyer Lipton, Chris M. Kauffmann (⭐FB, FB) as Antoinette’s husband, John Arlington, and Pat Towne (FB) as the hit-man Sinclair St. Clair. All were written as broadly comical roles, and all were played as broadly comical. Think of the hencemen in Kiss Me Kate or The Drowsy Chaperone. As such, for how they were written, they were played very well. Azar had the lead on a number of different numbers and had a lovely voice.
Rounding out the cast in smaller character roles and ensemble parts were: Bella Hicks (FB) – Mitzi, Female Ensemble; Anthony Marciona (⭐FB, FB) – Sam, Gas Station Attendant, Disco Guy, Stage Manager; Jamie Mills (FB) – Dee Dee, Ensemble. All were great. I noticed Mills first, as she was out before the show working the crowd with a wonderful personality (and a tiny little hat). Hicks caught my eye when she came out as Mitzi; in later roles, her personality just lit up and she was a delight to watch. Marciona had a face that kept making me think of a good friend from our synagogue’s mens club; he clearly had fun playing a large number of different parts – and was funny in his last role as stage manager, staying in role even after the bows.
Understudies who were not on stage were Richie Ferris (FB), Molly Livingston (FB) and James Olivas (FB). We’d see the latter two before in Steel Pier at UCLA; alas, we didn’t seem them at our performance.
Music was provided by an on-stage band conducted by Anthony Lucca (FB) – Music Director, Conductor, Keyboard. Other band members were: Austin Chanu (FB) – Woodwinds, Percussion; Jeff Frantom (FB) – Guitars; Cyrus Elia (FB) – Electric and Upright Bass; and Ryan McDiarmid (FB) – Drums, Percussion. The band had a great sound, and even had one chance to interact with the actors. Other musical credits: David O (FB) – Arrangements and Orchestrations.
The Choreography was by Janet Roston (FB), who brought some wonderful dances to the small space that is the Skylight. As the world premiere of a new musical, it is always worth asking whether this can scale to bigger and better venues. Dance is a large part of that. The dances in this show were expressive and fun, and I believe that they could scale to the larger stage of a Geffen or the Pasadena Playhouse, if not even bigger houses. There was a mix of the Western styles including what appeared to be some line dancing, as well as broader ballet and pop styles.
Lastly, turning to the production and creative side: The director worked with well-known LA scenic designer John Iacovelli (FB) worked with Properties Designer Kevin Williams (FB) and Projection Designer David Murakami (FB) to create a masterpiece of boxes that folded and unfolded to create all the different locations and locales and set pieces, blending overall design with properties, and occasionally with projections on the sides of the boxes. The magic of it reminded me a bit of Astro Boy with the overall creativity show for the space. As I write this, I hearken back to Falsettos again with the creative use of the stage pieces. Theatre need not always be strongly realistic; imagination on stage does wonders. Brian Gale‘s lighting design established time and place well; I particularly noted the heavy use of moving mirrors that were required in the space. That’s an unforgiving technology, and it worked well. Cricket S. Myers (FB) and Daniel S. Tator (FB) did the sound design, and it works reasonably well except for a few microphone crackles, and either some cell-phone interference or a mis-timed sound board queue. Sound effects were good, but could use improvement in the fight scene. Ann Closs Farley (FB)’s costume designs worked well, bringing in modern Western design, a touch of both the ridiculous and sublime, and just some nice looking outfits. Other production credits: Matt Franta (FB) – Fight Coordinator; Christopher Hoffman – Production Stage Manager; Ben Altman (FB) – Stage Manager; Garrett Crouch (FB) – Stage Manager; Michael Donovan CSA – Casting Director; Patty Onagan Consulting – Marketing; Guillermo Perez – Graphic Design; Gary Grossman (FB) and Tony Abatemarco (FB) – Producers.
Bronco Billy – The Musical continues at the Skylight Theatre (FB) until June 30. I liked it enough that I’m squeezing it in during Fringe to bring my wife to see it again. Translation: Yes, you should see this. Tickets are available through the Skylight Online Box Office; the code BILLY20 works at selected performances for 20% off. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) [2018-2019 season], and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
June is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). If you are unfamilar with Fringe, there are around 380 shows taking place over the month of June, mostly in the stretch of Santa Monica Blvd between 1 bl W of La Brea to 1 bl E of Vine, but all generally in Hollywood. On a first pass, there were lots I was interested in, 30 I could fit on a calendar, but even less that I could afford. Here is my current Fringe schedule as of the date of this writeup. [Here’s my post with all shows of interest — which also shows my most current HFF19 schedule. Note: unlike my normal policy, offers of comps or discounts are entertained, but I have to be able to work them into the schedule with the limitations noted in my HFF19 post]:
- Sat, June 8: 8p She Kills Monsters (Hobgoblin) 🎭 10pm The 2nd Annual Trump Family Special (Hobgoblin)
- Sun, June 9: 4p Hamilkong (Complex/OMR) 🎭 530p Supportive White Parents (Broadwater/2nd) 🎭 630p °2 for 1(Complex/OMR)
- Sat, Jun 15: 330p °Gunfight at the Not-So-OK Saloon (McCadden) 🎭 830p Bronco Billy – The Musical (Skylight Theatre (FB)) [Non-Fringe]
- Sun, June 16: 345p °Johnny ’81 (Complex/Ruby) 🎭 6p Town Brawl (Thymele Arts)
- Sat, June 22: 330p Shirley Valentine (Underground Annex) 🎭 630p A Night Out by Harold Pinter (Complex/Flight)
- Sun, June 23: 8p Public Domain: The Musical (Actors Company/LLT)
- Sat, June 29: 130p Four Clowns Present: Shakedown at the Dusty Spur (Broadwater/BB) 🎭 3p A Time Travelers Guide to the Present (Broadwater/BB) 🎭 630p Wigfield (Hudson/Backstage)
- Sun, June 30: 1p [Title of Show] (Actors Company/LLT) 🎭 3p Earth to Karen (Broadwater/BB)
In terms of non-Fringe theatre (which, yes, does exist): June starts with another concert: Rick Ruskin and Roy Bookbinder at Boulevard Music (FB). I may go to a check-in reading of a new play about Frank Lloyd Wright at Ensemble Studio Theatre (FB) before that. Fringe previews start the next week. We’re squeezing in a return to Bronco Billy – The Musical at Skylight Theatre (FB) on June 15. The end of June also brings Indecent at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on June 28, just before the busy last weekend of Fringe.
As for July, it is already filling up. The first weekend of the month is still open. The second weekend brings An Intimate Evening with Kristen Chenowith at,The Hollywood Bowl (FB). The third weekend of July brings Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), followed by A Comedy of Errors from Shakespeare by the Sea (FB)/Little Fish Theatre(FB). The last weekend of July brings West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). August starts with an alumni Shabbat at camp, and The Play That Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). August ends with Mother Road at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (FB), and we might do rush tickets for Alice in Wonderland as well. In between those points, August is mostly open.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!