FORT WORTH Jubilee Theatre is headin' 'em up and movin' 'em out with its new musical Black Spurs, a story of life and love on an 1870s cattle drive, which opened Friday.
Commissioning and producing a new work is an ambitious move for the downtown theater, which has celebrated the lives and arts of the African-American community for 32 seasons. This show certainly serves that mission by reminding audiences that many of the cowboys who tamed the Wild West (and gave Fort Worth an excuse to exist) were black. But, unfortunately, this production is a few hooves short of being a full longhorn.
The simple, and painfully familiar, plot deals with Sam Pete (Winston Daniels) and his efforts to save the family farm and win the heart of his true love, Savannah. To secure the funding he needs, he signs on to a cattle drive and plans to compete in the same bull riding contest that cost his father his life. He and his fellow cowboys endure the hardships of the hostile prairie, pausing only to let off steam (and get in trouble) in the rowdy trail stop, Black Town. It is there that Sam's eye is caught by the lovely Savannah (Lorens Portalatin), and his quest becomes more urgent.
The production has a consistently sunny disposition and a couple of standout performances.
Jubilee favorite Robert Rouse, who plays multiple roles, has his best moments as Black Town's sheriff, who is all bark and no bite. Laurence Pete, as the trail boss Rutherford, has a fine voice and projects a convincing Old West manner. But, unfortunately, there is little else that sets this show apart in any distinctive way.
The book, by Celeste Bedford Walker, is slight and predictable even by the standards of musicals. It receives little help from the show's songs, by Ron Hasley, which are pleasant and serviceable, but seldom rise above the ordinary. And the minimal musical accompaniment, led by music director Michael Plantz, does not elevate the material. Quinton Jones' stomping choreography is sometimes unnecessary and often clunky.
Jubilee artistic director Tre Garrett's direction moves the action along, but he fails to make this show's parts equal their sum. Most of his players turn in inconsistent or incomplete performances. Only Rouse and Pete handle their singing and acting with equal ease. The rest tend to have one skill or the other and, at the opening night performance seen for his review, the application of those gifts sometimes varied from scene to scene.
Overall, this show fails to find a comfortable place to exist. Its intentional lack of tension prevents it from appealing to adult audiences. It is not quite juvenile enough to be played just for children. And, while it is far from being a true drama, nor is it a Blazing Saddles-like spoof of the Western genre.
So, as badly as any fan of Jubilee would want this show to be a winner, it just does not measure up to the standards this theater has set with it productions of musicals. Black Spurs does not have much of a hat, and no cattle at all.