"Chaps!," Taproot Theatre’s current production, is light on plot and heavy on nostalgic Western-themed good times. Written by Jahnna Beecham and Malcom Hillgartner and directed by Karen Lund, "Chaps!" is about what happens in a live BBC radio studio during World War II when a group of American cowboy crooners fails to show up and the Brits in the studio are forced to fake it.
From that point on, the show is really just a marvelous journey through old cowboy tunes from the heyday of Westerns as well as a delightful peek behind the scenes at a radio show.
Archie (Simon Pringle), Leslie (Ian Lindsay) and Clive (William Hamer) all work at the local BBC studio, when Miles (Sam Vance) their hyperventilating manager realizes that the studio’s special live show with famous singing cowboys straight from America, complete with a live studio audience and being beamed out to the troops on the front, is due to go on in mere moments with no performers in sight. The manager of the visiting performers, Mabel (Caitlin Macy-Beckwith), arrives breathless from the station with all the props and costumes, expecting her performers. When they fail to arrive, chaos ensues.
Knowing that the troops are counting on the show for good cheer from home, Mabel and the British workers quickly re-cast the whole show and get down to work impersonating the real performers. Resistant and embarrassed at first, the new performers are gradually won over by both the silliness and romance in the Western songs and skits, finally throwing themselves into it with gusto.
Archie makes the most natural cowboy with his lanky good looks and his love of the music. Leslie starts out prim and stuffy, trying to sabotage the performance while sneaking drinks at every opportunity, but he progresses from barely being able to force out the lyrics of "Wahoo!" to donning the apparel of a lady of the night for his hilarious vocal shoot ’em up with Mabel in "Duelin’ Divas."
Smooth and dapper Clive welcomes the opportunity to perform but balks when he realizes he has to perform with a ventriloquist’s dummy named "Aces." When he breaks the dummy, Miles has to step in, with the dummy’s too small shirt draped over his shoulders. At first almost overcome with his anxiety about the show, Miles is soon grabbing the microphone from Clive to belt out "Jingle Jangle Jingle."
Part of the fun of watching a radio show is knowing that the radio audience is only hearing the show, while we in the live audience get to see all the backstage shenanigans. During "Ride, Cowboy, Ride" we get to see Leslie and Archie’s competitive spirits come out as they mime riding their horses, only to end up in a race with one another.
Stuck in the back with the band is Stan (Solomon Davis) the soundman who provides the effects. An odd shy character who won’t speak, he steals the show when, during an instrumental number when the rest of the cast has run out to do damage control, he creeps out from behind his effects table and does a little dance for us. Later, as the whole company is singing "Cool Water," driven by the powerful thirst created by the song, he sneaks out again to the tea table at the front of the stage to pour himself a tall glass of cool water.
And finally, during a tense standoff in one of the songs when a shot ought to ring out, Stan can’t find the right effect and the gun goes off with a variety of surprising sounds as Stan frantically hunts for the right one in a marvelous piece of slapstick.
The war is always in the background, reminding us that the popularity of these sweet and simple tunes and silly broadly-drawn humor wasn’t because people were simpler then, but because, on the contrary, people were living in frightening times with the world falling in chaos around them, and were just trying to hold things together the best way they could.
For me the songs brought back memories of childhood, listening to my father’s old Roy Rogers’ and Dale Evans’ records, and Rodeo Days in grade school growing up in West Texas. I thoroughly enjoyed the simple pleasure of watching a radio show come to life in skillful and humorous fashion. The talented musicians deserve a nod as well: Gordon Tibbits on bass, Eric Chappelle on fiddle and Edd Key and Theresa Holmes on guitar.
"Chaps!" runs through August 11 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-781-9707 or visit online at taproottheatre.org.