The current production at Flat Rock Playhouse is remarkable for two things: the musical skill of the performers, and the near-total absence of anything approximating drama. The former is impressive for anyone who admires classic Country and Western music; the latter is only a problem for those who go to the theatre expecting characters, dialogue and dramatic plot. Marty’s El Paso is no more and no less than an excuse to play a dozen or so Marty Robbins covers. Which makes it easy: if you like the music, you’ll like the show.
And the music really is good. The six-piece band (“The El Paso Border Patrol Band”) is fronted by the show’s creator and director, Jason Petty, and consists of an assortment of musicians who are all expert on their instruments. Apart from Petty himself, Eric Lewis (electric and acoustic guitars, lap-steel, vocals) and Carolyn Martin (guitar, vocals) have the particular expressive radiance that always makes a musician a pleasure to watch. Fortunately, the staging has these two close together downstage, so we get to see them work, interact with each other and have fun.
As for the drama question, the issue here is that the man to whom the show pays tribute was, as the program tells us, a man of whom “no one ever spoke ill,” “a family man, a devoted Christian, and a friend to many.” While this might make Marty Robbins the kind of guy you’d like to know in real life, it’s not exactly the stuff of drama. It’s to Petty’s credit that he makes no attempt to conjure up a dramatic conflict where there isn’t any. A few of the songs (particularly the cowboy ballads) tell a story, as often as not a story about killing, but that’s about the extent of it in terms of drama here.
The songs are arranged roughly in the order of their original release dates. In between numbers, we get Petty as himself, making wisecracks and telling anecdotes from Marty Robbins’s life and his own, including the story of how as a teenager he “met” Robbins. Some of this material is pretty interesting. I had not known, for instance, that Robbins (1925 – 1982) actually competed in NASCAR races, including the 1973 Daytona 500. This in addition to being the musician we know, one of the most successful and eclectic country and western singers of his generation.
In short, the show is a tribute. And Petty is on familiar ground here, having spent the last decade (and then some) portraying country legend Hank Williams, first in Lost Highway (for which he won an Obie in 2003 Off-Broadway), and then in Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes, which he also wrote and directed. I never saw either of those shows, but feel as though I got a glimpse of them in Marty’s El Paso: at one point during the first half of the show, which is devoted primarily to Robbins’ “influences,” Petty puts on a white jacket, picks up a miniature guitar, and in a kind of eerie way becomes Hank Williams. The effect is entirely different from and more compelling than his renditions of songs by Gene Autry, Eddie Arnold, Roy Rogers, et. al. Given Petty’s repeated allusions to his “Hank” work, it’s no surprise that he would roll out the big guns at least once here. But his portrayal of Williams has the uncanny effect of “channeling”: the voice, the face, everything seems transformed. What’s not clear is whether this channeling ability is the result of a decade of hard work and success in that role, or its cause. In any event, for that song, Petty manages to convey the odd mixture of quavering vulnerability and menace that made Williams’s voice and songwriting so distinct. The other songs are expertly done — and at every moment Petty proves himself a consummate showman — but the Hank moment goes beyond expertise into something great.
But it’s clear that, with this show, Petty is trying to move beyond his success with Lost Highway, and to find another route through the musical territory he obviously loves. In this, he shows himself to be an artist, and not merely an entertainer. But for the moment, he’s still looking back over his shoulder a bit too often. He also does himself something of a disservice with the thinly-veiled commercialism of the show (witness the repeated reminders — before, during and after the performance — that CDs are for sale). This, combined with the frequency with which Petty asks the audience whether we’re “having a good time,” betrays an anxiety it’s uncomfortable to watch. It’s also unnecessary, since there’s really nothing to worry about. The show easily clears the bar of polish and professionalism that Flat Rock Playhouse is known for, and the audience knows they are in good hands.
Marty’s El Paso: Created, directed, and performed (as “the Narrator”) by Jason Petty. Musicians: Rory Hoffman, Eric Lewis, Carolyn Martin, David Martin, Michael Radovsky, Charlie Vaughn. Stage Management: Kimberly Darcy. Scenic Design: Dennis C. Maulden, Jason Petty. Lighting Design: Robert P. Robins. Costume Design: Jason Petty. Sound Design: Hank Lueck. Properties: Paul J. P. Feraldi. Technical Direction: Bruce Bailey. Show runs through October 18. Performances: Wednesday through Saturday at 8:15 p.m. Sunday at 2:15 p.m. Tickets $34. 693-0731.