Charlie Russell's Montana depicts a Broadway-style Old West on the brink of becoming tamed and settled.
The story unfolds through the eyes of Cody (Kyle Crawford), a child put on a train with a note explaining he's an orphan searching for his Uncle Marion. Cody wanders around the train station and meets up with Charlie Russell (John Semmens), a pack of kick-line forming cowboys, assorted tribal people, busty good-time gals and real live horses.
For those of you who have not been educated in Montana public schools, Russell was an artist who came from St. Louis to the Treasure State with cowboy dreams in 1880. As he acquired a reputation for being a likable wrangler, was also friendly to Indians, Russell recorded his days on the Western frontier amidst huge herds of bison thriving on unending seas of grass, accompanied by the first cowpokes who led to the buffalo's eventual passing.
The end of the wide open spaces became a major theme in Russell's art-and it's the central theme in Montana as well, with lines like, "Damn that barbwire civilization to hell!"
Based on the musical Cowboy, conceived by nationally renowned composer, lyricist and Montana native R. Richard Riddle before his untimely death in 1988, Montana was adapted by Deny Staggs-who also plays scruffy range rider Con Price-for the Fort Missoula amphitheater's inaugural season.
It's a good choice for a repertory-style show in Missoula, with a pre-curtain barbeque offered and the wide open sky and Bitterroot Mountains bearing witness. In fact, the best and most unique thing about Montana is that it's put on outdoors. With the sun slipping behind the mountains and the crows hollering at the sunset, the open air complements the authentic looking set consisting of a saloon, a train station and tipis.
The show itself is fun, too. The songs are mostly about cowboy life and don't-fence-me-in sentiments set to bluegrassy guitars and fiddles. Yet the production seems to almost be trespassing on serious ground by mentioning the extermination of the buffalo and the gross maltreatment of indigenous populations by encroaching Europeans. One buck-skinned "Indian" looked suspiciously like a white guy in brown make-up and a black wig, which seems pretty comparatively un-politically correct, if not a cop out.
Of course, it is a musical, so don't expect a hard look at genocide. For the most part the show is a jolly testament to the way things used to be in Russell's time. Our hero is trying to make it as a painter/cowboy as his wedding day looms, while the villainous, traditionally black-clad Pretty Freddy (Chris Casquilho) stalks around with his lackeys trying to bully Youngboy (Joe Whitehawk) into giving up his land.
Semmens, and Renata Godfrey as the Widow Jackson, turn in the strongest performances and both have lovely singing voices. Godfrey doubles as the show's choreographer, and the best dancing is done by the cowboys, although many will enjoy the requisite number where the shady ladies do a sort of can-can, at one point bending over with skirts hiked up and derrieres to the audience.
Michael Barger, hairstylist by day, also acts and looks immanently comfortable as one of Pretty Freddy's desperadoes, chomping on a cigar and toting a rifle. Part of the music contains native flute playing by Whitehawk, which is another highlight. And Staggs, whose direction works just fine, also aquits himself with authentic Western style as one of a number of scrungy cowboys.
Outside of a fun summer evening, there's another reason to see this show: The proceeds go to the R. Richard Riddle Memorial Scholarship in Composition. In the meantime, this true Montana original-which has enough entertainment, for the most part, to keep reality at bay-ultimately will be something the whole family finds pretty darn entertaining. Sarah Schmid
The Fort Missoula amphitheater presents Charlie Russell's Montana, Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., through Sunday, Aug 2. Tickets $10 adults, $8 students and seniors, free for children under 6. Barbeque starts at 6:30, and is priced separately.
Dancing under the Big Sky in Montana.