GARDEN CITY — “Well, What were you expecting?!?!” – This opening line in The Hanging of El Bandito – Reimagined at Pickleville Playhouse was indicative of what the entire night would be. Because the show contains so many powerful elements, that there are only two expectations I would recommend for audience members: to be truly entertained and to leave a little sore from laughing.
“Welcome citizens of Windy Bottoms to the hanging of the baddest bank robber in the West.”
Pickleville has an excellent rustic and eclectic feel to it. The log cabin walls are inside out, which fit well for this fifth iteration of the Juanito Bandito saga taking place in the old west town of Windy Bottoms. Luke Shepherd at the piano started the evening by playing familiar toe tapping tunes like “Maple Leaf Rag” and “Piano Man.” Then we were taught to cheer for the good guys and boo for the bad guys. I soon realized, though, that it’s hard to pick a side. While attending in Garden City, I saw a number of people with El Bandito on their T-shirts or his mustache on their faces and you wondered if there would be an uprising from the audience to save the outlaw from the noose.
The gags were endless in this show. The physical humor was perfectly balanced with hilarious lines to leave my side hurting throughout the show. One great example of the humor was Juanito’s desire to steal the reward on his head to start a career as a video blogger about mustaches. His limitless pride carried over to bodily obsession for ridiculous poses about his mustache, biceps, or his stretchy pants. Several times the actors joined the audience in laughing at what was happening on stage, like when Juanito coaches his sidekick Happy on “proper singing posture.” (I might try that “V” shape in my next church choir performance.) The actors were so comfortable with such moments in the show that it doesn’t feel strange.
“You’d do anything for him? You would even do…a musical number with me?”
The musical numbers were just as impressive, funny, and eclectic as the comedy. Musical styles included Latin tangos, hip hop, ’80s rock, and a very informative song on the power of mustaches. The songs did not appear to be parodies, but rather original songs. Most amazingly, regardless of how the songs style differed in style, voice requirements, and choreography, the actors executed them perfectly. There were some occasional diction, volume, or balance issues, but they were so minor that I overlooked them. Final proof that the music was good is that my wife and I pre-ordered the CD of the show for future enjoyment.
The choreography by Sharli Davis King appeared was fresh, well-spaced, fit the music, and added a great dynamic to each number. Dance numbers like Bandito’s love song with Sam or the opening song regarding Juanito’s pain were excellent “musical theater” numbers, but still had plenty of little intricacies in the hand and footwork. Meanwhile, Kat the Killer’s ’80s rock number and the Juanito’s huge hip hop number had the backup dancers performing more complicated routines that let the dancers show their versatility with more athleticism and technical styling. I was thoroughly impressed with the caliber of the dancers as they progressed through the myriad of music genres and were completely comfortable and energetic the entire evening.
“What? No live animals? No Pyrotechnics?”
The technical elements really make the show an enjoyable spectacular. Director and producer Andrea Davis ensured that everything look and flow together seamlessly. Each set was full detailed and functional, such as a town square, El Bandito’s hideout (including outhouse and Lakers paraphernalia), and the sheriff’s office. The pacing was excellent, and even if a scene was little long the comedy kept me interested until you the scene ended.
I was particularly impressed by the lighting design by Josh Roberts, especially for the ’80s rock and hip hop numbers, which felt like being in a professional concert. The costumes by Lois Hugie and Erin Davis made the cast look fantastic, still let them do all the choreography, and occasionally were even part of the jokes (like stretchy pants).
But an extremely talented cast is what really made this night a treat. T.J Davis as Juanito Bandito—with his stretchy pants, accent, monologues, one-liners, and improv—was simply wonderful . The only thing possibly more perfect was his handlebar mustache and his entire devotion to it. Davis (who also wrote the script) effectively worked the numerous running gags, including his need to express his “pain,” his hopes of playing for the L.A. Lakers, and every possible nickname for a mustache. Davis is versatile and multitalented and can even play a Hispanic playing an Asian. (Wrap your head around that one.)
Juanito was supported by his partners in crime, Billy and Happy (Megan Bagley and Eric Sackett). There is not a more loveable pair of idiots in the entire Wild West. They had great physicality while also having excellent comedic timing to either set-up or nail a punchline. I particularly liked their piano trio with Luke Shepherd during the “Mustache Song.” I also loved their montage where they tryied to keep watch. My diaphragm nearly tore from laughing at the end.
Derek Davis as Sheriff Rowdy Jackson was excellent both as a white knight and straight man in the show. Although overshadowed by some crazier characters, I liked his “Sheriff’s Log,” the text message conversation with Bandito, and his conversation with Juanito about how he’s lost every night for the last three weeks. Davis was very funny in his slight awkwardness and confusion about his love interest and possible “F.E.C” (Future Eternal Companion), Sam. Sam (Jessica Jenkins) is charming as the sheriff’s love interest, and appropriately repelled by Juanito’s advances because even staring straight into El Bandito’s mustache cannot win her over. Jenkins also has very strong voice that she gets to show off in Bandito’s love duet and the hip hop number in particular.
Whitney Davis as Kat “The Killer” Sullivan had a rocking voice she got to showcase in “Do or Die” and did a great job carrying her grudge against El Bandito, who she used to partners with. Davis also expertly wrangled her own sidekick, William (played by Jacob Swain). There’s not enough space to review all the characters Swain had to play for William’s multiple personalities. But most audience members will probably find one that leave them busting out laughing.
“Are you serious?”
Can I really praise a show this much? I really can. Anyone in the area of Bear Lake should do all they can to see this show over the summer, and if that doesn’t work out, try to go to the touring productions in Logan or Salt Lake City. I know I am tempted to go just so I can enjoy another side-splitting and entertaining evening again.