Urban Cowboy - the Broadway musical
Review by Robert Abrams
April 7, 2003
Urban Cowboy is a musical that has rounded up a great cast and a kicking band. The performers show off bursts of talent throughout the show. The story, based on the film with John Travolta, concerns the rocky love story of Bud and Sissy.
This is a show that has gotten some bad press, so I went in trying to keep an open mind and not let other reviewers' opinions bias mine. Overall, I thought there was a lot to like in Urban Cowboy, but it needs a small amount of tweaking to become a great show. They already have the elements they need for greatness, but they need to play a little more to the show's strengths.
The dancing is very enjoyable. The choreography tends to be a little stereotypically yee-haw cowboyish, but this is a show about city slickers pretending to be cowboys, so the style of dancing fits the theme of the show. Besides, this is Broadway, so being a little over the top is expected. In fact, there were several times during dance numbers when people in the audience did in fact yell out "Yee Haw!" From the tone of the audience's responsiveness, I believe they were enjoying the dance numbers.
The band was great. The band is placed on stage, somewhat in the manner of Chicago. The band opened Act II by themselves with a song and got roaring applause from the audience. The band also did a fine job of supporting the singing during the body of the show.
The songs were well sung. Some were original and some were clearly recent popular Country tunes.
The acting had its moments. There were some very tender, touching scenes. There were some comic moments that were brilliant.
The problem with Urban Cowboy is its structure. It has too much exposition carried by dialogue. And even with all of the exposition, the plot often seemed rushed. Part of the problem is that even though this is a fun musical, it has underlying moral issues worthy of a trilogy of Greek drama. The main character, just to pick one example, is a ten gallon hat full of contradictions. He is a man who is rigidly self-righteous about loyalty in marriage and relationships, yet he is also quite promiscuous.
The show would be better served if some of the plot points were deemphasized. They should cut out several of the talky scenes. Then, they should add about eight new numbers. Specifically, I think they should add two numbers per act where the band is featured more prominently. The band really gets the audience going, and they could further the plot by singing a song relevant to the show, filling a role somewhat like that of a Greek chorus. They should also add four new dance numbers. Two should be big, showy production numbers. The other two should be social dance oriented. The main disappointment I had with the dancing was not with the dancing that was present. My main disappointment was with the dancing that wasn't present. At one point in the show, Sissy asks Bud to prove he can dance. Bud takes Sissy in his arms and proceeds to do a silver shuffle (a version of the clutch and sway that progresses line of dance because the dancers take small steps where their feet pass each other in a shuffling manner - feet passing each other being characteristic of silver level dancing). If you have ever been to a real Country Western night club, you know that the people who show up there can in fact dance, many of them quite well. Country Western Two-step, the usual mainstay of these clubs, is a great dance that can be danced close, and in the more recent styles can also sweep across the floor. If Bud really expects to win Sissy's heart, he has to dance like he means it.
Jenn Colella, who plays Sissy, has a heart worth winning. She had a stage presence that was both commanding and endearing. She was comic and tender by turns. She could sing and dance. She is a gem in a well-rounded, talented cast.
The band, composed of Jason Roberts Brown, Dave Keyes, Brian Brake, Gary Sieger, Kermit Driscoll, Antoine Silverman and Gordon Titcomb was superb.
At the end of the show, some people in the audience liked it enough to give the cast a standing ovation.
Overall, based on my own viewing of the show and my observations of the audience's reaction, I feel that previous theatre critics have been overly harsh. I think the show is worth seeing, especially if you can get discount tickets.
On the other hand, as I have said above, I think the producers would be well advised to give the show one more tweak. Cut some of the dialogue. Add more of the band and more dance numbers. Without changes, the show is not likely to survive. With changes, the producers will have a good chance of ending up with a Broadway hit, and will almost certainly have a show that will do very well on the road.
Urban Cowboy was choreographed by Melinda Roy, directed by Lonny Price and produced by Chase Mishkin, Leonard Soloway, and Barbara and Peter Fodor. The book was by Aaron Latham and Phillip Oesterman. The cast features Matt Cavenaugh, Jenn Colella, Leo Burmester, Marcus Chait, Sally Mayes, Rozz Morehead, Jodi Stevens, Michael Balderrama, Mark Bove, Gerrard Carter, Nicole Foret, Lisa Gajda, Justin Greer, Michelle Kittrell, Brian Letendre, Barrett Martin, Kimberly Dawn Neumann, Tera-lee Pollin, Chad L. Schiro, Kelleia Sheerin and Paula Wise. Set by James Noone, Costumes by Ellis Tillman, Lighting by Natasha Katz, and Sound by Peter Fitzgerald.
Urban Cowboy is playing at the Broadhurst Theatre at 235 West 44th Street. For more information, go to www.urbancowboythemusical.com.
Matt Cavenaugh in Urban Cowboy
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik
Matt Cavenaugh and Jenn Colella in Urban Cowboy
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik
The cast of Urban Cowboy
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik
The review of Urban Cowboy was a collaborative effort with WestieMonkey.com. See John Fink's review.