Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Jeff Daniels’s Singing Cowboy Never Quite Hits that High Note

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.


5 comments on “Jeff Daniels’s Singing Cowboy Never Quite Hits that High Note

  1. Vickie Arndt
    July 11, 2008

    Why no mention of Tom Whalen performance??


  2. lilyseye
    July 12, 2008

    Good call, Vickie. I thought for sure I had gone back and added his name in — but that’s all I would have done. I was a bit underwhelmed by Whalen’s performance (note that I did not go into the particulars of Powers’s performance either — for the same reason). His performance didn’t rise above the cliche character he was playing, but the character also did not suffer because of it, and so I simply chose not to mention him.


  3. Guy Sanville
    July 18, 2008

    Suggest you read THE COMPLETE WORKS OF HAROLD CLURMAN. Our greatest critic. The first page lists the 10 things every drama critic should know. With all due respect, you don’t know what you’re seeing. Thanks for coming and good luck, Guy


  4. lilyseye
    July 22, 2008

    Dear Guy,
    I sincerely appreciate your investment in the production and in the art of contemporary criticism. That being said, I do not consider Clurman “our” greatest critic, as I do not consider his writings my model for criticism mostly due to his insistence on critics declaring authorial intention and how effectively a production upholds that intention. Regardless of this personal preference, in your comment above you seem to have done exactly what Clurman and so many other worthy critics advise against: you have given an opinion (“you don’t know what you’re seeing” ) without explaining that opinion (what exactly did I, the spectator and critic, misread in your production? And how is it possible that such a misunderstanding or unawareness might have occurred?).

    I thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my thoughts, and I look forward to seeing more of your and Daniels’s work at the Purple Rose.



  5. Trent
    July 22, 2008

    This is an interesting confabulation we have going here! I find a number of things disconcerting about Mr. Sanville’s recent post. First, he recommends The Complete Works of Harold Clurman to the blogger. If one wishes to assert their higher knowledge of Theatre Arts and suggest we all be better informed please help us along correctly, the book is called The Collected Works of Harold Clurman.
    Secondly, I assume what Sanville is referring to with his post in particular is Clurman’s insistence with the critic’s avoidance of value judgments. I am reminded of the September, 1974 issue of The Drama Review containing the article, “4 Directors on Criticism: Bill Eddy, Gilbert Moses, Joseph Chaikin, Harold Clurman,” where Clurman was asked to explain the function of a critic and he responded: “To help create an intelligent, sensible, knowledgeable audience… not to be so anxious to say whether something is good or bad.” I think we can all agree blanket statements such as “good” or “bad,” without qualification or explanation, should be avoided in a criticism designed to increase the knowledge of an audience.
    To say someone “doesn’t know what they’re seeing,” [I’m not sure how such a statement could be proceeded by an honest “with all due respect”] however, sounds like a perfect statement from a man worshiping Clurman. In that same TDR article, Clurman explains a discussion he had with a local critic in which he asks the man to sit in on a table reading of a play he was directing, then come back in a few weeks for the blocking, and finally see a final performance. Supposedly, with this knowledge of exactly what he intended the critic would be better equipped to make an accurate critique. Like any sensible, critic the man refused, explaining such knowledge would remove his “amateur status” which one needs if they are going to write for the general public. This infuriated Clurman.
    For Sanville to pedantically assert the blogger “doesn’t know what he/she saw” reinforces the idea that to truly grasp a theatrical work one must not only see the final performance but be a part of the rehearsals (and casting? call-backs?) to understand the director’s intentions.
    In the post-modern world, the author is dead. There are no intentions outside of the work itself and that is to be the only thing judged, critiqued, reviewed. The blogger knew what he/she was seeing; it just didn’t happen to be the interpretation Sanville fought to create. The blogger could be in the minority but the opinion still exists.
    Intelligent criticism is something lacking in modern American theatre. Maybe it is time to stop blindly worshiping critics born before the airplane was invented and welcome well-supported, constructive criticism.


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This entry was posted on July 7, 2008 by in Comedy, Musical, Reviews, Theatre, Theatre Reviews.



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