For a show with a limited premise –harried Brits forced to stand in for some Yank singers of cowboy ditties --- Chaps! packs plenty into its under two hours. The 1995 musical comedy by Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner melds Monty Python-like physical comedy and one-liners with “A Prairie Home Companion” folksiness, while paying tribute to singing cowpokes like Gene Autry. As if that weren’t enough, the story, set at a BBC radio studio in 1944, unfolds with the threat of German bombs bursting in air above.
Somehow, all this comes together at Lamb’s Players Theatre under the direction of Robert Smyth. It does so not because Chaps! is any great shakes, but because the production relies on what Lamb’s does so very well: builds shows around intimate live-musical performance. (Its Once was a highlight of San Diego-area theater in 2018, and even its year-end Festival of Christmas was a musical delight.) The songs of Chaps! composed by everyone from Roy Rogers to Johnny Mercer may not be everyone’s cup of tea: They include “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” “I’m An Old Cowhand,” “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle,” and “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” among others. But the actor-musicians in the cast – Steve Gouveia, Manny Fernandes, Caitie Grady and Charles Evans, Jr. – make the tunes a treat for even city slickers in the house.
While the setup of Chaps! would have been sufficient for a 10-minute skit, there are enough comic antics to divert in between the musical numbers. The funniest sight gag finds Fernandes pretending to perform ventriloquism with Evans dressed up as his dummy. Evans is a scene-stealer throughout, whether during this shtick or as Miles Shadwell, the BBC studio’s anxious, asthmatic producer.
It’s perhaps inevitable that in a comedy like this one, somebody would dress up in drag. Ross Hellwig, mustache be damned, dons the frippery of a saloon girl in Act 2. From the sidelines throughout, Arusi Santi provides cartoonish sound effects to create the impression that the “Tex Riley” show is happening on the radio, and Jeanne Reith’s western costumes for all are bright, bodacious and authentic.
Chaps! is slightly frantic but sweet sounding and family friendly. Not even World War II intrudes.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 3/20/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.