Chaps! A Jingle Jangle Christmas
By James Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner
Vocal Arrangements by Malcolm Hillgartner and Chip Duford
Directed by Patrick Flick
Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, Orlando FL
I don’t know how stiff a Brit’s upper lip really is, but it makes a great motivation for this odd and entertaining holiday show that avoids the tropes of ghosts, holiday thievery and unfulfilled commercial purchasing fetishes. In 1944 the Allies had the Germans on the run, but the war still might go either way. In BBC House Miles (Mark Whitten) prepares for a highly publicized broadcast of American cowboy singer Tex Riley. His career rides on the show, and staff announcer Leslie Briggs-Stratton (Phillip Nolan) starts drinking early as sound effect wizard Stan (Brandon Roberts) warms up his coconut shells. Miles begins puking when Tex gets lost minutes before show time but his stage manager Mabel (Melissa Mason) and the crew decide they can do the show without Tex. After all, what self-respecting subject of the King can’t fake an American accent? Archie Leach (Michael Gill) plays guitar well enough and sings about tumbling tumbleweeds with a Kentish accent, so all they need is a solid blue grass band. Oh, look, here comes one, straight from the Silver Spurs Rodeo!
Alright, the premise has more holes in it than the State Department’s recycle bin, but that’s not important. The show mixes straight and parody country songs with a set of mixed accents that wander from Midland Texas to Manchester England. That is, we have American actors using their best coached accents trying to sound like Englishmen trying to sound like Americans. Often as not they give up and just sing in their regular voices, but everyone does have the pale complexion like they haven’t seen the sun in months and are subsisting on mashed peas and bangers stuffed with sawdust.
Mr. Gill can pick the Sears Masonite guitar as well as anyone, and when you put a dress on Phillip Nolan you get a very lumpy man in a dress and a mustache. A nascent romance smolders between Mabel and Archie but it never takes over the show, there’s no time considering the stage panic and buzz bomb attack. One of those nasty Jerry missiles even lands in the parking lot, so I recommend the valet parking. Brandon Robert wields a mean coconut horse hoof as Michael Edwards stuffs Clive Cooper’s shirt as the pompous, windy guy who feels awkward in chaps and jeans. Off on the side we hear a truly versatile blue grass band. They left these guys off the program, but that could play session anywhere up to and including the Grand Ole Opery.
While there’s holiday songs and holiday themes, “Chaps” never invokes that spilt eggnog feeling that permeates the season. It helps to like cowboy songs and have British sense of humor, but there’s heart here. You truly feel these folks really are singing for the troops in frozen foxholes with bullets flying overhead, and if they is they sing loud enough, the boys will come home. We always have boys we need to bring back home; we just keep moving them around out there.
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