Creating theater in nontraditional and/or site-specific venues is the hottest trend in the discipline, and while “Spirit of the Trail” won’t win any awards for innovation or risk, it comes together so entertainingly and smoothly it can’t be discounted.
“Spirit” is the debut from Orchard Theatre of Texas, an undertaking by Emmy winner and writer Richard Allen, and Jim Covault, a longtime fixture at Stage West before his retirement a few years ago. (He still has a relationship there; he’s directing its next production “Sex With Strangers”).
“Spirit” is performed in a narrow banquet hall at the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame in the Stockyards, with the museum’s collection of stagecoaches and a Roy Rogers exhibit that includes his horse Trigger and dog Bullet, and Dale Evans’ horse Buttermilk visible through glass behind the audience.
Covault and Allen will announce OTX’s first season soon, and it’s a good guess this show is not necessarily an indicator of the type of content planned. It does signal that they have plans to pay actors and artists respectable wages, as two in this production are Actors’ Equity members and there’s a four-member band. Musicians don’t play for nothing.
The talent is evident here with the seasoned cast of Gigi Cervantes, Amber Flores, Michael Isaac, Jim Johnson and Kristal Seid, plus the band of Kyp Green (double bass and electric bass), Bill Ham (guitar) and Al Mouledous (violin), led by music director and arranger Jay Adkins (keyboards).
Allen conceived and wrote this show, which Covault directs, to celebrate the 150th year of the Chisholm Trail, probably the most famous of the post-Civil War cattle trails in the West. This one connected Texas and Kansas.
Short spoken stories about the trail — driving the cattle, the importance of coffee from the chuck wagon, the legacy of female ranchers, etc. — are connected by about 30 songs on Western themes.
Those tunes range from American standards (Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In,” Gene Autry and Ray Whitley’s “Back in the Saddle”) to C&W hits (“Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” made famous by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings; Toby Keith’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy”), to musical theater (“The Farmer and the Cowman” and a slower-tempo “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City,” both from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”).
There are a few new songs, such as “Good to be Gone,” written for this show by Scott Davis, and Richard Allen and Till Meyn’s “Stampede.”
My favorite section features Cervantes and Flores, who both have voices suited for understated, folksy storytelling, on Patty Griffin’s “Rider of Days,” k.d. lang’s “Luck in My Eyes” and Michael Burton’s “Night Rider’s Lament.” The last has been performed by many artists, but this version reminds of Nanci Griffith’s. That’s followed by an arrangement of Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” in a version more like the Dixie Chicks’, with Cervantes playing banjo. She and Flores play guitar often throughout the show.
Johnson, Isaac and Seid have big musical theater voices that translate to this venue, working in balance with the band.
Stick horses and do-si-dos make appearances, so it can get a bit hokey (Patsy Montana’s “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart”). But the singers’ harmonies and ensemble vocals more than make up for it.
Come to think of it, this show is risky in the sense that most theater-making is a risk, especially when there’s expense and time invested. Orchard is on the right path.