a theatre, film & pop culture review
When I heard that Jeff Daniels’s new play was a musical comedy about a singing cowboy, there was no way I was going to pass that up. While Daniels has maintained a vast and varied film career, acting in everything from family fare (101 Dalmations) to indie gems (The Squid and the Whale) to politically-charged Oscar winners (Good Night, and Good Luck), he’s also a playwright and founder of The Purple Rose Theatre Company in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, a small town just west of Ann Arbor. Though he’s certainly pulled off some serious – and seriously good – fare in the past (his The Guest Artist, about the meeting at a bus station of a young playwright and his not-so-green mentor, covers art and politics and everything in between and is both moving and philosophically engaging), he’s probably best-known in theatre circles for Escanaba in da Moonlight, his Dumb and Dumber-esque comedy about life in Northern Michigan that essentially revolves around much hunting shtick and many, many flatulence jokes. So, knowing Daniels’s previous work, I assumed that Panhandle Slim and the Oklahoma Kid would be something akin to an utterly ridiculous musical comedy adaptation of Brokeback Mountain. But you know what they say about assuming things…
Panhandle, though a musical comedy of sorts (it’s more of a “play with songs”), is more about showcasing Daniels’s original music (which is tuneful, but not exactly essential to developing plot or character) than it is about making anyone laugh. It tells the simple story of a wayward outlaw who provokes the wrong cowpoke, thus getting himself shot, tied up, and left to die an amazingly slow death under the sweltering prairie sun (a sun which the audience can practically feel thanks to lighting designer Reid Johnson’s warm, glowing tones). Luckily for Slim (and for us), a singing cowboy saunters onto the scene, wielding a guitar instead of a gun, and proceeds to sporadically humor us for the seemingly long remainder of the ninety minute show. Thanks to his Monty Python-styled giddy-up and his impeccable comic timing, John Seibert’s Oklahoma Kid is a shining advert for living unconcernedly and reveling in a happy-go-lucky attitude. Unfortunately, Daniels’s play and Guy Sanville’s direction allow too few opportunities for Seibert to really shine, and instead waste too much time on strange flashback sequences in which we are introduced to Slim’s would-be love (if only he would learn to be good!), played by Jessica Garrett with a lovely lilt to her vocal lines, and the man he wronged (Phil Powers).
Panhandle Slim perpetually repeats jokes that aren’t all that funny in the first place and does so in between not-exactly-profound discussions of the meaning of life. It’s an odd mix that doesn’t work effectively because the play only touches on those deeper themes, never delving into them, and the comedic portions aren’t nearly light and charming enough to seamlessly transition between and infiltrate the philosophical discussions. While Daniels’s past efforts with comedy and not-so-usual settings (I can’t imagine there exists many plays set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and styles worked in his favor, it’s no wonder that this production represents the sixth draft of a play for which he claims “th characters led the way.” Could anyone expect more than a few stale jokes and halfhearted attempts at serious discussion from a balladeering broncobuster and a feckless fugitive? Maybe not, but based on the many unamused faces I observed during the show, I don’t think I was the only one assuming things.