GARDEN CITY — Inside an unassuming log cabin alongside the serenity of Bear Lake, Juanito Bandito, “the fastest gun in the West,” entertains locals and tourists alike as a Pickleville Playhouse staple. Although this season’s production Ready, Fire, Aim was certainly not the character’s first shootout, it was both my inaugural experience at this venue and my first introduction to The Bandito himself. In this installment, the sheriff’s attempt to execute the outlaw and his posse goes predictably awry as the thin story line and vapid characters manipulate the plot through a series of checkpoints established for jokes. But do not misunderstand my implications of the formulaic fun. It works!
This quirky production’s success is due in part to the purposefully procured ambiance at Pickleville Playhouse, a theater which wears its idiosyncrasies like a Miss America crown. Be it the shameless merchandising (costume design by Erin Davis incorporated the original t-shirts available for sale in the lobby), the terrific graphic design advertising the season and its sponsors displayed prominently throughout the theater, or the pickle pun included in the script, this theater begs not to be taken too seriously. The result is an atmosphere which becomes a playground for a character like Juanito Bandito. In fact, even the audience is expected to get in on the fun, providing feedback that the characters incorporate into the show. As a result, the script feels almost like a living entity, capable of absorbing even a loud audience member’s unexpected “Oh, my!” into the tender moments of a ballad.
In truth, however, the show’s success rests mainly in the fact that T. J. Davis not only co-directed the show with Derek Davis, but plays the character of Juanito Bandito and writes each adventure personally. T. J. Davis’s comedic writing draws from four main sources: current events, Utah humor, accent related wordplay, and viral video references I will admit to not always understanding. I appreciated the general absence of religion-based humor and never got tired of the mistaken accent gags. I’m still laughing over one moment during which Juanito Bandito issued a threat to his sidekicks Freddie and Gator warning, “I’ll choot choo.” Though the audience had no difficulty inferring the threat of being shot, Freddie and Gator segued immediately into the sound effects of an approaching train. Uniquely skilled at penning the comedy, T. J. Davis was equally suited for bringing Juanito Bandito to life. The resulting caricature was equal parts charming and ridiculous, and T. J. Davis’s portrayal afforded him a likable arrogance.
The comedy moved effortlessly from traditional spoken dialogue to rapped rhymes with heavy back beat. These transitions were facilitated by Luke Shepherd, whose talent at the piano, harmonica, and saxophone were well worth my drive from Salt Lake to see the show. Shepherd played frequently throughout the production, punctuating the punchlines and foreshadowing the forthcoming events as is typical in a melodramatic production. Since the piano was so prominent, the characters were sometimes a line or two into a rap before I realized they had even entered a musical number. Other times, Shepherd’s riffs gave me cause to consider how Billy Joel might put his own twist on a Scott Joplin piece. It was these piano-heavy numbers overlaid with rap that make me want to take Juanito Bandito up on the suggestion to purchase the soundtrack on the theater’s website.
Although T. J. Davis’s compositions weren’t limited to rap, I did find his attempts at other genres to be met with varying success. A pop number performed by Kira Stone in the role of Sarah felt jarringly out of place, and the crossover country number written for Harley (played by Keeley McCormick) lacked depth in both its lyrics and chord structure. Just when I had determined to write that Davis should steer clear of melodic compositions, however, he and Stone performed a Spanish number that showed off his ability as a songwriter in a way that also strengthened the production. Still, the strongest number of the evening for me was the only number featuring the entire cast. I left the theater with the refrain turning over and back again in my mind.
Even in the small cast of seven players, a few actors stood out to me in specific ways. Nathan Kremin was given the difficult task of playing Louis, a character who had no discernible impact on the plot, but whose involuntary transformation from one well known fictional character to another provided a continuous prompt for laughter. Ranging from The Princess Bride to Lucky the Leprechaun, Kremin committed to each character fully and immediately, often packing an entire impression into only a few words. Another of my favorites was Hannah Pyper as the self-admittedly vacant sidekick Freddie. The only thing more precise than Pyper’s comedic timing was her hard-hitting steps in hip hop sequences choreographed by Sharli King and Whitley O. Davis. The stand-out actress in this production, however, was Stone as Sarah. While her mannerisms and vocals occasionally reminded me of the Pitch Perfect star Anna Kendrick, Stone really had a strong style of her own. I loved her baffled reactions to Juanito Bandito, especially during their shared Spanish dance. And as the note I jotted down during the show simply states, “That girl could rap!”
For most UTBA readers, an opportunity to see Ready, Fire, Aim would necessitate a road trip, and such a decision would be difficult to make simply on the merits I’ve provided above. Wanting to provide the best possible description of the treat that awaits you in the fewest words possible, I’ll sum it up this way: Hamilton meets a Desert Star production. If that means nothing to you, I’ll try the Bandito’s own words, “I know you guys paid for your whole seats… but you’re only gonna need the edge.”