Maybe Shakespeare penned worse plays than The Merry Wives of Windsor, but none more shameless. It milks his darkly comic Falstaff antihero for yucks so low that when W.H. Auden was paid to lecture on all of Shakespeare's plays, he refused to do the "very dull indeed" MWW. "I have nothing to say," he said, "so let's hear Verdi."
Lone Star Love 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., 625-1900, www.5thavenue.org. $20–$77. 7:30 Weds., 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sat., 1:30 p.m Sun. Ends Sept. 30.
It's the very badness of MWW that made me optimistic about the 5th Avenue Theatre's Broadway-bound adaptation, Lone Star Love. You don't have to worry about travestying the Bard—he did it first. Frank Rich calls MWW "a play that demands invention to ward off rigor mortis," and as Verdi proved, the right music can reinvent the tale of a fat soldier wooing two wives who humiliate him instead. Transporting it to Texas and injecting some ace bluegrass tunes by Jack Herrick and the Red Clay Ramblers could be just the thing to jump-start the mangy old warhorse.
It does—as Jeeves used to say, "to a point, sir." Jack and the talented Ramblers do pluck up a storm, and their a cappella number, "Hard Times," is the show's artistic highlight, a tune that lodges like a burr in the brain. As the randy faux Col. John Falstaff, who swiped the uniform from a real colonel in the recent Civil War, Randy Quaid turns in a fun performance as loud as the hue of his red-dyed hairdo. Though not much of a singer (and oddly, not fat despite his big number, "Fat Man Jump"), he's one movie star big enough to project his presence all the way to the balcony. First glimpsed on a scratchy old-time movie screen riding a bucking bronc in a cattle stampede, he rips right out of the screen onto the stage. When the ranchers thank him for (inadvertently) stopping the stampede, he concocts his plan to rummage the drawers of Windsor, Texas.
The missuses Lauren Kennedy and Dee Hoty, concealing said drawers beneath a theater curtain's worth of overembroidered calico each, sing well and do all they can to make the double-cross seductions funny. Kara Lindsay and Clarke Thorell, the young true lovers who counterpoint Falstaff's false romancin', sweetly croon the night's other highlight, the love-at-first-sight duet "Prairie Moon," with a killer melody reminiscent of Lucinda Williams' "Price to Pay."
The set is nice: a barn high as a cathedral, its roof beams echoing the Fifth Avenue stage chinoiserie, looming over echt Western architecture—spiral stairs in floral wrought iron, a nifty Garter Saloon with a swinging door that looks like a painted lady's bustier. (The opening-night audience gave this visual gag a well-earned laugh, and then, in a later scene, laughed at it again—these folks are as reliably uncritical as the parents in The Music Man. No wonder Broadway tries out shows here.)
As Windsor's incompetent French health official, Doc Caius, Drew McVety scores big with a jaunty comedy number, "A Fatal Dosage." Ramona Keller absolutely steals the show as the Whoopi-ish, sarcastically ass-whuppin' housekeeper, Miss Quickly. Many of her quips and others' evince the comic chops of co-author Robert Horn, a writer of five Designing Women episodes. Lone Star Love creator John L. Haber hired Horn to punch up the show and speed its pokey progress from its 2004 off-Broadway debut to Broadway.
Broadway has seen worse, but there's at most one good hour in Lone Star's 165 or so minutes. With three exceptions, the melodies range from marginally passable to urgently cuttable. The lyrics tend to mindlessly hammer an unmemorable phrase over and over, as in the gals' number "World of Men" and "Code of the West." As George and Frank, the husbands Falstaff wants to cuckold, Dan Sharkey and Tony nominee Robert Cuccioli get pallid parts. They all sing well enough, but I'd rather hear Texans break wind than listen to the Sharkey/Hoty marital duet "Texas Wind" again.
Dramatically, it's a lost cause. Even the good numbers lead nowhere storywise. Not even Cuccioli can animate the pointless "Vaquero," wherein he pointlessly disguises himself as a Mexican to gull Falstaff. Shakespeare's stubbornly unfunny plot can be redeemed by speed and directorial sleight of hand; director/choreographer Randy Skinner makes it a long, ponderous succession of utterly disconnected skits. His choreography is vapid and tepid, except for a last-minute curtain-call hoedown so rousing you marvel at the dull steps that went before.
The dialogue sometimes achieves the snapped-towel sting of sitcom wit, but it doesn't make scenes move—remember how static Designing Women always was? The 5th Avenue audience was kinder than Broadway may be, falling out of its chairs for gags warranting a smile and practically rioting at the line, "Havin' a ranch in Texas in no way qualifies you to be a politician, George!" Also overapplauded were lines I've heard before: "Any woman who aspires to be equal to a man lacks ambition!"
Can this fat man jump to Broadway and stay? For a spell. Just don't expect a Lone Star Love stampede at the Tonys.