"Christmas on the Ranch" puts country-fried schmaltz and music on the holiday menu at Plymouth Playhouse.
Bring back the Church Basement Ladies.
The crusty doyennes of lemon bars and hot dish can't be asked to work every Christmas season, so Troupe America has cooked up "Christmas on the Ranch, a Cowboy Musical." On the terms of a musical revue, a case could be made that this slim entertainment will have country music fans tapping their toes. I cannot imagine the creators intended much more -- at least I hope they didn't.
As usual with Troupe America productions, the show looks great and polished. Susan Holgersson has roughed out a big old bunkhouse on the Plymouth Playhouse stage. Music director Dennis Curley and the band Tree Party sharply articulate twangy harmonies, and Plymouth Playhouse regulars Tim Drake and Chuck Deeter reliably get their laughs with well-wrought characters. Tree Party's Joey Ford floors us as he warbles through a song called "Christmas Yodel."
At the story's center, though, writer Greta Grosch relies on schmaltz and "Hee Haw" humor. She proposes that we are off yonder in the Dakota badlands, at the Lazy Melody Ranch of Miss Monica (Monica Heuser). It's Christmas Eve, 1961, and the matriarch is feeling low because her daughter Jenna (Jenna Wyse) is off studying rock formations in Canada. The bunkhouse boys (Drake and Tree Party) decide to put on a party with Mayor Cody (Deeter). We, the audience, are the townsfolk invited to the shindig.
I hate to ruin a surprise, but Jenna does make it home. So she joins in with fiddle and accordion as the hoedown gives us such ditties as "The Merry Christmas Polka" and "Rootin' Tootin' Santa Claus." There is a formulaic efficiency to Curt Wollan's production -- which oddly enough is good and bad news. Ford and Wyse rise above it with Ford's song "I Got My Christmas Wish When I Saw You." Wow, a genuine moment. Deeter also brings an authentic artistry to "O Holy Night."
Heuser made her mark in the Twin Cities as Patsy Cline in "Always, Patsy Cline." Clearly, director Wollan hoped that her big, friendly style could carry this ersatz country cornpone. Vocally, this is indeed the case. Dramatically, though, Heuser treats the maudlin material too reverentially. One could legitimately argue she has no choice, but too often the treacle puts us into sugar shock.
What makes the Church Basement Ladies (Troupe America's best-known property) so successful is their bite and the edgy contours of real life. "Christmas on the Ranch" has not jelled with that theatrical spirit. To be fair, perhaps it wasn't intended to be more than a holiday confection. Whatever, it has less staying power than weak Lutheran coffee.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299