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Theatre in Review: Texas in Paris (York Theatre Company)

Lillias White, Scott Wakefield. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Lillias White and Scott Wakefield make an ideal team: He warms up the room and she brings down the house.

As John Burrus, a middle-aged Texas horse wrangler who never sang professionally until he finds himself giving a series of concerts of cowboy songs in Paris -- it really happened, and we'll get to that in a minute -- Wakefield delivers songs like "Windy Bill," "Git Along, Little Dogies," and "Cowpuncher Riding the Range" in a voice stamped with dust, grit, and a stoic awareness of how easily happiness can slip through one's fingers. He sings about life on the cattle trails, of faithless women, and foolish men who live for today only to find that tomorrow comes too fast. There are no tricks here, no gimmicks, no begging the audience for empathy or applause -- just a man, his feet planted firmly, guitar in hand, surveying some unseen interior landscape as he offers his inside view of life's sorrows.

As Burrus' stage partner, Osceola Mays, White, a lady who needs no introduction, shows yet another side of her multifaceted personality. We've seen her command the Motown sound in Dreamgirls, sashay through the songs of Cy Coleman and his sophisticated lyricists in more than one show, and make like jazz diva Dinah Washington in Dinah Was. She has also demonstrated her command of pop styles in nightclub gigs. Here, playing a simple, pious Dallas widow, she wraps her talent around a parade of folk and gospel classics -- "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," "Oh Mary, Don't You Weep," and "When the Saints Go Marching In" -- and you marvel once again at her clear, bell-like tones and the unforced vocal power. She also plunges into these songs with unaffected joy, making clear how they have guided Osceola through good times and bad. Like Burrus, Osceola is not a professional singer, but here one can easily imagine how she might wow a sophisticated Parisian audience with her infectious spirit.

In his introductory speech at the York the night I was there, James Morgan, the artistic director, clearly stated that Texas in Paris isn't a musical. He's right about that -- indeed it is barely a play at all. When Wakefield and White aren't singing, they have to settle for some sketchily written scenes illustrating Burrus and Mays' adventures in the City of Light.

One can only imagine what the experience must have been like for them. Burrus and Mays had been discovered by Alan Govenar, whose company, Documentary Arts, is dedicated to preserving American folklore. Not only were they nonprofessionals, they didn't meet until arriving at the airport for their flight to Paris in 1989. The book scenes, by Govenar, try to make odd-couple comedy out of the bubbly, garrulous Mays, who is clearly having the time of her life, and the taciturn, stuck-in-his-ways Burrus, who struggles with highly sauced French food and who occasionally forgets his lyrics on stage. The script also dances around racial issues, as Burrus is forced to reexamine some of his more hidebound attitudes. These scenes don't build dramatically, and they don't do much to inform the songs; they come across as filler, or maybe notes for a fuller, more nuanced drama yet to be written.

Still, even here, the stars deliver. White makes Mays' first taste of a buttery croissant into the biggest gustatory revelation since Julia Child had that first French dinner. She also makes you feel the hard work and hopelessness of growing up a sharecropper's daughter. Given a much narrower emotional range to work with, Wakefield can still be touching when dismissing his tiny role in the liberation of Paris in 1945 or berating himself for not following up on, or even befriending, the black youth he helped out in a time of trouble.

The director, Akin Babatundé, wisely lets his stars do what they do best, but he might have done more to make the combination of songs and dialogue scenes into a more seamless whole, although the production design gets the job done. The set design, by Morgan, is purposely spare, to make room for Jason Johnson-Spinos' projections of Paris streets, restaurants, and concert halls, all rendered in a pleasingly homemade manner, as if Mays had brought her Bell and Howell movie camera along with her. Morgan, who has a special knack for dreaming up amusing-looking prosceniums, does so here, with a view of a Texas prairie dotted with telephone poles at stage right and the Eiffel Tower at stage left. Brian Nason's lighting makes use of a broad Technicolor palette to make an intimate, inviting atmosphere on stage. Christopher Vergara's costumes are fine, as are Johnson's sound effects, which include airplanes, street traffic, and concert audiences.

But the people and the songs are the thing here. Both are splendid, but this offers White fans a rare opportunity to experience her voice in unplugged, unfiltered fashion. And by the time both of them join in on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," they have made believers of us all. Near the end, Burrus, unbending a little, says to Mays, "Listening to you has brought me unexpected joy." I know just how he feels.--David Barbour

(5 February 2015)

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