THE LAST ONE NIGHTER ON THE DEATH TRAILBook by Christie Vela and David Goodwin
Songs by Our Endeavors Theater Collective
Director – Matthew Earnest
Music Director - Scott A. Eckert
Costume Designer Amelia Bransky
Lighting Design – Bryant Yeager
Prop Design – Wayne Sciurus
Sound Design – Matthew Earnest
Scenic Design – Matthew Earnest
Veronica – Dominique Brinkley
Gabby – Scott E. Eckert
Trixie – Olivia de Guzman
Wally – Trae Hicks
Moe – David Lugo
Kid – Rashaun Sibley
Countess - Wendy Welch
Skeeter – Cora Grace Winstead
Pudge – Isaac Young
Reviewed Performance: 4/30/2018
Reviewed by Mark-Brian Sonna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The answer in this case is C.
On paper this show should work: The premise of having a vaudevillian troupe rehearsing and performing their acts at the end of vaudeville era as a grand metaphor about how society and culture evolves leaving behind those who cannot adapt to change in the dustbin of history is truly brilliant. Having songs that entertain while frequently serving as commentary as to the relationships and providing psychological insight of the characters has been done before but it is a very effective tool in a musical when done properly. Showcasing vaudevillian styled acts that haven’t been seen by modern audiences can be thoroughly entertaining if presented well. Round up a sensational cast & crew that know how to deliver.
The problem is that all these disparate elements don’t gel in this production. All I could think of was Orson Welles & Cole Porter’s notorious 1946 musical flop of “Around the World in Eighty Days” on Broadway. In that production critics assailed Welles for throwing everything on the stage except a kitchen sink. The following night during his curtain speech, Welles threw a kitchen sink on the stage. I had the privilege of reading the unpublished book and score of the musical and it was astoundingly good. But when I read how the show was produced with many disparate elements continuously added, it became obvious why the show derailed: it lacked cohesion.
“The Last One Nighter on the Death Trail” suffers from the similar fate. It’s as if it were a mix of elements of the musicals “Cabaret”, “Sugar Babies”, Ibsen drama, and the play “Waiting for Godot”.
The musical opens with much promise. A group of 1930’s vaudevillian performers are desperately trying to find work at a time in which vaudeville has fallen out of favor. Their goal is to secure a gig at Dallas’ Majestic theatre if a slot opens up for them. For the next two hours we learn about each character’s history, relationships are explored, and the mystery of the past of the newcomer is revealed near the end. Unfortunately as an audience we never quite connect with any of them, so when tragedy strikes, we don’t feel an emotional pull.
Christie Vela and David Goodwin’s script is chock full of wonderful dialogue. Most of the jokes and funny and lines land effortlessly. The series of revelations behind the character’s past are well written, but none of them surprised: The mystery of who Trixie really is did not surprise but her eloquently written monologue did and demonstrated the power of the authors’ skills.
The music by Our Endeavors Theatre Collective is creative, fun, and at times poignant. They definitely capture the 1930’s period. The lyrics are clever as can be; unfortunately none of the melodies are memorable. This said, each musical number enables to showcase the performers, and they in turn take advantage of it to deliver some sensational moments.
As far as the actors go the results are also mixed. Each one of them at one point or another demonstrated their acting strength either via the dialogue or their respective song. But frequently there was an inconsistency in the tone of their performances.
An example of this Isaac Young who plays Pudge, a wanna-be Fatty Arbuckle. To say he is bitter is an understatement. It’s a very one note performance. Yet when he gets his musical solo suddenly his character has depth. Contrast this with Wendy Welch marvelous portrayal of the Countess. While she plays the trope of the aging Grand Dame of theatre, there were nuances to her character that carried through to her solo number. Both actors are fabulous, but this disparity is jarring. Are we supposed to see subtle sides to these characters all the time, or only during the musical numbers?
The same could be said with Dominique Brinkley’s “Veronica” who gets the best visual joke of the evening in the way she plays the sax, versus Olivia de Guzman’s Trixie who is the newest recruit. Guzman plays her character with a degree of realism throughout whereas Binkley only lets us see it during her musical number. Again, two great performances, but approached in differing ways.
Cora Grace Winstead as Skeeter, Trae Hicks as Wally, Rashaun Sibley as Kid, David Lugo as Moe, and even the smaller role of Gabby played by Scott E. Eckert captivate. Each one of these actors gets their moment to shine and they do in spades. But once again, the inconsistency in the approach to their material continuously made me wonder if I’m supposed to be watching a comedy, a drama or a dramedy. Is this theatre of the absurd, melodrama, a musical review, or a period realistic drama? The acting styles were all over the place.
Perhaps some of the fault lies in Matthew Earnest’s direction. He needed to set the performance approach by his cast to create consistency. There is a confidence and mastery to his direction throughout the book scenes. He creates wonderful stage pictures which is more difficult in theatre in the round. He kept the pace of the show to a quick gallop yet allowed some tender moments to breathe. As far as his staging of the musical numbers: he mostly fails. While some musical numbers require a bit of dancing, and the uncredited choreographer did a fabulous job, for the most part Earnest places the lead singer smack center stage and has them rotate in place. I understand the need to at some point to face each side of the audience, but it was very predictable and tedious since he did it with almost every song. When he broke this mold was during Wendy Welch’s solo. In this number she approached the audience from one corner and moved across the stage, and the effect was marvelous, but by the next number he went back to stand and rotate.
Scott E. Eckert who doubled as the musical director also showed his mastery. For a band of two, he was able to fill the theatre with sound, and his jangling playing made it sound as though we were listening to vaudevillian numbers.
On the production side things were also uneven. While I appreciated the period concept of the costume design by Amelia Bransky I was unsure if she was going for caricatures or realism. Skeeter’s costume was realistic, Veronica’s was over the top burlesque trashy. Skeeter’s character is a miss goodie-two- shoes, but she appeared as a young woman in a day dress from the era, whereas she could have been dressed more like a cartoon version. Or Veronica could have a costume that was not as over the top, but still hinted at her slutty nature. What she does nail is the added costuming the characters frequently put on during the musical numbers: they are fun and bright.
Mr. Earnest was also in charge of the sound and scenic design. Some voice-overs and sounds are used qeffectively but then the issue of the whistle to help punctuate Pudge’s jokes arises: it simply didn’t work. Not that there was a problem of having a kazoo or whistle sound, but it easily could have been done live by someone on stage or from the music pit instead of blasting it over the loudspeaker. There is barely any stage design. The large stack of suitcases that are on stage at the top of the show looked great and could have been used cleverly throughout the show to create chairs, tables, and locations, but instead they are quickly whisked away and we are left with a blank stage throughout the bulk of the show with few fun props popping in and out by Wayne Sciurus to provide visual excitement.
I’m not certain who was in charge in creating the projected visuals on the stage since it wasn’t credited in the program. I’m sure people sitting higher up could make out the projections with ease. Since I was seated on the front row and the lowest level, I had to concentrate to make out what I was seeing which was a bit frustrating because it pulled me out of the show completely.
Bryant Yeager’s lighting illuminated the stage quite well. He was able to create suitable moods throughout, but there was an overall absence of color and with some of the zany and colorful moments that this musical has it felt like an opportunity missed.
So should you go see this show? It depends. There are some great moments in this show and the cast is terrific. But, as an entire evening of theatre it feels disjointed.
2800 Routh Street, Suite 168
Dallas, TX 75201
Performances are Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays 8 PM, Saturdays 8 PM, Saturday May 19th 2:30 PM, and Sundays 2:30 PM through May 20th, 2018.
Tickets $10 - $50. For information and tickets visit www.Theatre3Dallas.com