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More Melodrama

The Great American Playhouse brings free popcorn and Gaslight-like family entertainment to Oro Valley

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There's a new kid on the theater block, and that block now extends all the way to Oro Valley. The Great American Playhouse raised its curtain last weekend, launching the greater Tucson area's second theater specializing in melodrama, that rather low-brow genre featuring the good guys versus the bad guys and groan-worthy pranks and puns.

The Gaslight Theatre on Tucson's eastside has entertained Tucsonans for 35 years with its version of the style, and it has perfected its formula for fun. Comparisons of the two groups are to be expected, although not totally fair, particularly since several of those involved in the new venture have been involved with the Gaslight in various capacities.

But TGAP will, of course, earn its own identity, and it has begun be presenting Pistol Pete, The World's Greatest Cowboy, an original piece written and directed by Nick Seivert, who also appears in the show. Creating scripts is standard practice in melodrama, and that usually means taking a known story idea and perverting—uh, converting—it into something that fits the individual theater's needs, utilizing stock characters depending on the actors at their disposal, and infusing the story with local flavor.

Pistol Pete is such a product. The cowboy (Stewart Gregory) and his pals are fine with riding the range and adhering to an honorable cowboy code but, predictably, they run into a bully, Bullfrog Doyle (Sean MacArthur), who is bent on buying—or otherwise claiming—all the land around Grasshopper Junction. In fact, there's pretty much everything one would expect in a story of the West: A saloon-owning mayor (James Gooden) with two daughters, one of whom, Petunia (April Lisette), is much more demure than the feisty Rose (Jodi Darling), the one favored by Pete. Then there's the saloon girl Gypsy (Jacinda Rose Swinehart) who might have a thing for the mayor, although he's not bright enough to notice.

Bullfrog and his sidekick, Loco (Brian Paradis), plot to take over the saloon, which the mayor is disinclined to sell, so they set Pete and his crew up so that it appears they have robbed a stagecoach. They flee to Mexico, where a member of Pete's gang, Juan Juane, is from, and they hang with his mother for a while.

But the paths of good and evil will inevitably cross and there is a showdown between Pete and Bullfrog that involves dynamite, naturally. Will the greedy Bullfrog prevail, or will Pete and the gang rescue the town and its denizens?

Seivert's script is solid enough, although it could use some simplification and tightening up. It may seem odd that there is indeed real skill required for creating a script for a melodrama, since it seems so silly and derivative. But there definitely are requirements to make such a script work, some similar to "straight" plays, and some quite specific to this type of storytelling. Generally, events have to be plausible within the world the playwright sets up, even though that world is far from what we collectively see as real. Otherwise there is no room for comedy when an element of the story breaks from that world. There is a need for simplicity of storyline. Too much action or too many subplots mire the story. And too many jokes, no matter how funny, can end up being distractions, believe it or not. Repetition is also a necessary component of the style, but in just the right amount.

So there is a lot to balance to be effective, and Seivert runs into trouble from time to time. It seems he got to a point where he didn't quite know how to draw things to a rip-roaring but plausible conclusion, so the ending feels weak. But his understanding of what is required seems sound enough.

Critical to the evening is the music, and musical director and accompanist Mike Padilla has done a great job making the music and songs stand out. Most of the songs are well known, and are not tweaked into new words and rhymes. The cast is full of strong voices, and they have obviously worked hard to create a great sound, as individuals and as a group.

Rick Tuckett's costumes are fine, including the tricky, but very funny, men-riding-horses getups. Brian McGinn's set, however, presented some problems. The backdrop used for most of the outdoor scenes consisted of projections of photographs of the desert and mountains. This seemed inconsistent—jarring, even—with the fanciful story and the other set pieces, which were obviously created with whimsy.

After Pistol Pete winds down, there's a short break before the cast re-emerges to perform a Broadway Olio. They took a more serious approach to this part of the evening, and although it included humor, it wasn't a spoof. There were some fine performances of great songs from a variety of musicals. There were a couple of clunkers as well, one of which was "Fugue for Tinhorns" from Guys and Dolls. It's a tough piece, and it seemed tentative.

There were a few technical glitches, particularly with the mics. Volume was inconsistent and it was sometimes difficult to understand some of the dialogue. And the actors were totally unlit as they exited the stage and lined up along the wall in their finale. But this sort of stuff can be dealt with.

The theater itself, in a strip mall right off the highway, is newly constructed and built specifically for the group. It seems rather sterile now, but perhaps it will become more seasoned, more theaterlike, as they settle in. There's free popcorn, and a menu featuring pizza and sandwiches.

Judging from the premiere of TGAP, these guys will definitely find an audience of those who enjoy this kind of theater. Welcome to the block.

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