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Theatre in Review: Loveless Texas (Boomerang Theatre Company/Sheen Center)

Colin Barkell, Brett Benowitz, Joe Joseph. Photo: Yadin Photography

We've seen his works performed in almost every conceivable time frame and context, but Shakespeare and Texas, I fear, make for strange bedfellows. About a decade ago, we had The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas, a boisterous, yet barren, musical frolic with a title that tells all. Now comes Loveless Texas, a musical that resets the action of Love's Labour's Lost in 1929, with a cast of characters who shuttle between Texas and New Orleans, engaging in intrigues both financial and amatory. This setting and time frame make for a notably awkward fit, an attempt at matching doublet and hose with ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots that is as ungainly as it sounds.

Unlike Much Ado About Nothing or As You Like It, Love's Labour's Lost doesn't resonate much with modern audiences, in large part because its central conceit is so deeply rooted in the Renaissance mindset: Four young men, including the King of Navarre, take a three-year vow of celibacy, during which time they will dedicate themselves to study. Of course, no sooner has the pledge been taken than four lovely young ladies turn up and we're off to the races, each youth's resolve quickly crumbling in proximity to so much beauty and wit. The predictably comic wooing comes to a crashing halt with the arbitrary, abrupt announcement of an offstage death, which leaves the action unresolved until some unspecified future date.

Not everything the Bard gave us is filled with timeless insights. We can still appreciate the war of words between Beatrice and Benedick, the feuding lovers in Much Ado; everyone has met a pair like them. Similarly, Rosalind, the heroine of As You Like It, is possessed of an independent streak and sense of humor that is strikingly modern. But today the notion of abstaining from fleshly pleasures to cultivate the mind seems like the flimsiest possible setup for romantic comedy hijinks. In trying to find a fresh context for these often-unconvincing lovers' games, Cailín Heffernan, author of Loveless Texas' book, spins a plot that is even less compelling than Shakespeare's original. Berowne Loveless Navarre, heir to an oil fortune, is an unregenerate playboy who gets into one scandalous scrape after another; his hard-drinking, hard-partying ways are amusingly documented in the opening number, "This Party Will Never End," in which he, accompanied by his good buds, Bubba and Duke, chase chorus girls at Texas Guinan's speakeasy and drunkenly take a dip in a Paris fountain. Berowne's brother, King, who controls the family purse strings and is fed up with seeing his family name associated with headline-making scandals, makes an unrefusable offer: All three young men will sign on as employees of the Navarre family firm for a term of three years, during which they must abstain from women and booze.

Berowne and the others reluctantly agree to this plan, although it's never clear what's in it for Bubba and Duke. The feminine contingent arrives in the form of LaReine Beausoleil, daughter of a New Orleans dealmaker, and her lady friends. King previously agreed to sell a piece of land to LaReine's ailing father, thinking that it was barren of oil; now that it is producing gushers, he wants to renege on the deal. At least, I think this is the case: The actors tend to rattle through the expository dialogue, apparently to dispense with it as quickly as possible. (The notorious original ending is shifted to the end of the first act, to provide a suitable moment of pre-intermission conflict.)

Heffernan has seemingly expended all her creative energy in finding Jazz Age referents for the original plot, leaving little room for romance and laughter and doing nothing to solve the predictability problem. Even for a light musical, the characters are alarmingly thin. King comes off as a joyless, judgmental prig, and his relationship with Berowne is informed by an unpleasant anger that is largely left unexplained. (A little evidence of affection would go a long way toward making us care about them.) Berowne's romance with Rosaline, one of LaReine's gal pals -- which, ideally, should provide the action with its beating heart -- is strangely lacking in any spark. The rest of the lovers, all poorly differentiated, come and go in packs; they make up an army of ingenues deployed in romantic maneuvers. At times, the entire enterprise feels like a throwback to one of those pre-Show Boat musicals in which various couples chase each other around country clubs or Long Island estates; there's even a plot twist involving a "cowgirl bandit" that even P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton would have rejected as laughable. The attempts at countrified humor boil down to lines like "You're sweating like a whore in church."

A better score might have rescued things, but in terms of filling out each character's individual profiles, Henry Aronson's country-western songs don't do nearly enough. His lyrics are workmanlike and his music is often pleasant, but the people on stage require flesh and real feeling, which, too often, aren't provided. There's a nice rueful ballad for King and LaReine titled "It All Blows Away," followed by an attractive item called "I Nearly Missed It," and John Herrera, as a preacher who advises King (Don Armado in the original), gets a big hand with a largely irrelevant ballad, "The Devil in the Prairie Sky." But there are too many group numbers that rehash the obvious, with titles like "If Ladies Was Friendly (Like Horses)."

In a cast filled with Broadway veterans, few get the opportunity to stand out. As Berowne, Joe Joseph has almost more dynamism than this little entertainment can bear; I'd like to see him in another, better show. Trisha Jeffrey has a nice presence and big voice as LaReine, who finds herself falling for King even as she opposes him in business. Darren Ritchie seems hamstrung by the role of King, the show's official wet blanket, but his singing is powerful. Colin Barkell manages some throwaway laughs as the slow-on-the-uptake Duke. If Amanda Lea Lavergne can't do much with the role of Rosaline, the fault may lie not with her but with a script that gives us no reason to believe that she and Berowne belong together.

Evan Hill's ranch setting gives the large cast plenty of room to maneuver; an upstage clapboard wall serves as a surface for David J. Palmer's colorful projections of illustrated Texas vistas and grand Garden District mansions. Cheryl McCarron's costumes are all over the place; the men's outfits barely nod to the period while the ladies are outfitted in frocks that recall the mid-1930s, and, in one scene, 1940s-style slacks. Michael O'Connor's lighting is fine enough, but Ian Wehrle's sound design feels artificial in the book scenes and sometimes underpowered during the musical numbers.

Ultimately, the central problem with Loveless Texas is existential: What is accomplished by moving Love's Labour's Lost to the land of gumbo and oil barons? Why is it set in 1929? Answers are in short supply. Heffernan and Aronson have wrought many changes, but they are all cosmetic; the play's problems not only survive, they stick out in their new setting. As Shakespeare might have said, Don't mess with Texas. -- David Barbour

(18 September 2017)

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