Slow Dance with a Hot Pickup
It's not everyday that a regional dinner theatre gets to be part of an "out of town try out" for a musical with national aspirations, but Boulder's Dinner Theatre is doing just that with the world premiere of Slow Dance with a Hot Pickup—book by John Pielmier (Agnes of God, Boys of Winter) and score by Emmy-winner Matty Selman.
As a ratings ploy, a radio station is giving away a fancy truck and selects eight local contestants to vie for the prize. The last one left with his or her hand on the pickup is the winner. As days pass and the breaks become scarcer and the emcee becomes more snide and sneaky, the contestants begin to wither and drop out, but not before sharing their stories with us.
No one dies and there's no concluding marriages, so in the classic sense it's not a tragedy or a comedy. The only real drama is who is going to hang on the longest, which leaves us with a slice-of-life, with eight different, highly-abbreviated stories that intersect only on the most superficial levels.
At the center of the set is a shiny new Toyota Tundra king cab pickup with a TRD off road package. In pursuit of this purely materialistic (and attractive) object, some of the contestants come to grips with a more evolved set of priorities in their lives and some do not.
Given the short shrift afforded to character development, the piece is structured more like a comedy than anything else, but the brief songs and personal confessions currently meted out to each of the characters are often too serious for comedy (and this brevity seems to marginalize and even trivialize some serious subjects).
So, the question arises as to the message that the creators are trying to convey: Is this a matter of keeping one's eyes on the prize, as we are reminded in the lyrics, or is this a lesson in overcoming our materialistic urges and instinctive fears and concentrating on more meaningful things? As one character says, "What's this truck worth? Not enough to fix your life!"
Either way, the piece needs to be a lot funnier, engaging, and cohesive if it wants to get its message across. Having eight characters spend a significant portion of their evening with their hands on the truck severely limits the action, but if that is a sine qua non of the story, then the truck itself ought to be played up more.
The truck is, essentially, a representation of the Golden Calf; in effect, it is a deus ex machina, a classical Greek technique for resolving the plot. The farcical possibilities around such an idol are endless, but no one ever sits in the cab (or backseat!) and only one scene has any action on the truck bed (Surely a temporary insurance policy could cover any wear and tear?). If the hot pickup is indeed the title character, then each of the eight human characters needs some kind of developing relationship with it. Even the winner of the contest needs to develop some sort of detachment from its gilt-edged allure. As a work-in-progress, there are lots of ways to go.
In addition to the plug for Toyota and the local dealership, other product placements include a radio station (free publicity trade-outs?), a mattress company, and an espresso shop.
Nancy Robillard directs a multi-talented ensemble: Brett Ambler's exuberance and youthful tenor are a delight; Leonard Barrett Jr.'s amazing baritone and personal magnetism always impress; Alicia Dunfee's comedic chops and warm mezzo deliver a big punch; Barb Reeves hooks us with a couple of beautiful ballads; Passion Lyons is a knockout as the ingenue; John Scott Clough forges a compelling emotional journey; Sheila Traister paints a light-hearted portrait of an Asian-American cowgirl wannabee; and Dwayne Carrington's gritty war vet provides some wizened gravitas.
Neil Dunfee's quintet is as smooth as ever, though if the piece were to take a more comical or farcical turn, the score could use a few more musical genres—perhaps a calyspo or samba, a cabaret piece, or some Texas-swing—the production numbers a little more dressing up (after all, they take place outside the timeline of the story, so anything, a la Busby Berkeley, is possible), and the band a few more instruments. Much of this could come with additional investors, as the piece makes its way from Boulder (like New Haven and Philadelphia in the old days) to other dinner theatres, regional theatres, and, one can hope, New York.
Boulder's Dinner Theatre's world premiere of Big Fish Big Pond's Slow Dance with a Hot Pickup runs through November 5th. 303-449-6000.