Fort Worth — The brand-new Orchard Theatre of Texas taps into a wellspring of uniquely American themes with its first show, Spirit of the Trail: A Musical Celebration of the Chisholm Trail. Performed its first weekend at the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, the show has moved for the rest of its run to a venue even more evocative—the historic horse and mule barns of the Fort Worth Stockyards, which now house the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.
This musical revue, a showcase for about two dozen irresistibly toe-tapping Western songs, feels entirely at home here. Some of the folkier tunes, though not as old as the trail, feel like “kissin’ cousins” to the songs strummed and sung by the thousands of cowboys who drove cattle up the Chisholm Trail from North Texas to Kansas in the mid-19th century, running on hot coffee, chuck wagon meals…and music.
Others sing of a West those trail drivers never saw, a land of pickup trucks and interstate highways. But they’d surely recognize what the new songs are about: the pull of the home left behind, the dangers and beauties and loneliness of wide-open spaces—and, always, the utterly American urge (as one song says) to “lock the door…[and] find a new place to call my home.” Sometimes, as the footloose settlers of the West and their descendants all know, it just “feels good to be gone.”
With a cast of five versatile singer/actors—Gigi Cervantes, Amber Flores, Michael Isaac, Jim Johnson and Kristal Seid—and a terrific band (led by music director Jay Adkins) that swings easily from Western to country rock, Spirit of the Trail has just what it advertises: plenty of spirit, and some to spare.
Orchard Theatre is the invention of Emmy Award-winning writer, playwright and TCU professor Richard Allen, who conceived and wrote this premiere show to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail and its Fort Worth history, and longtime Stage West producer and actor Jim Covault. In Spirit, Covault and Allen show off their considerable skill with storytelling and myth, mixing the West of real history with the West of our imagination, the one we’ve been inventing for ourselves all along: in Broadway shows and movies, on radio and TV (remember Roy and Dale?), in country bars and rockin’ big concert halls.
The song list includes quite a clever mix, from old favorites “They Call the Wind Mariah” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” to Toby Keith’s rousing “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and the funny “Don’t Fence Me In” (Cole Porter wrote a cowboy song?). There’s folk collector John Lomax’s “Old Chisholm Trail” and Chris Curtis’ rocker “Getaway”...Lerner & Loewe’s soaring “Wandering Star” from Paint Your Wagon and Patty Griffin’s haunting “Rider of Days.” There are great songs from Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stevie Nicks, k.d. lang, Austin songwriter Scott Davis—and even a Willie and Waylon standard, “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” that was actually written by someone else, Nashville songwriting couple Ed & Patsy Bruce. Who knew? (Well, you probably did, but not me.)
The band—a pure-D listening pleasure all evening—turns on a dime from one style to another, never seeming to drop a note or break a sweat. They need to be mentioned by name: musical director Adkins on keyboard, with Kyp Green on bass, Bill Ham on guitar, and Al Mouledous on violin. The singers were great, but to tell the truth, if the band had kept on playing, I might still be there.
The cast does some do-si-do-ing to lively choreography from Suzi McLaughlin and raises the roof with reverberating ensemble harmonies. Best solos spots, if we have to pick, might be Jim Johnson’s gorgeously soaring “Mariah” and his slow, wistful version of “Last Cowboy Song”; Kristal Seid’s gleeful vocal rocking to Bill Ham’s blazing guitar on both “Getaway” and k.d. lang’s “Luck in My Eyes”; and sweet-voiced Gigi Cervantes singing her poignant original song “Los Vaqueros de Mexico.”
Michael Isaac pairs his clear, edgy voice with Johnson’s on some great “guy” numbers, turns “Cowgirls Don’t Cry” into the next father-daughter wedding dance number, and transforms into a comic rube for “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City.” And Amber Flores, who surprises us by yodeling her way like an Opry star through “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” is just grand in a range of very different songs from rock to blues to folk, including a meet-up with Mouledos and his fiddle for the lilting ballad “Rider of Days.”
Spirit of the Trail continues through July 9 at the Stockyards venue—a pretty cool place to sit and listen (and rest your little dogies) if you’ve been wandering the summer streets of the North Side.