GARDEN CITY – Pickleville Playhouse in Garden City, Utah, is a true hidden gem. For 36 years they have been presenting melodramas and musicals every summer on the shores of Bear Lake. While this may be a bit of a drive from Salt Lake City, let me assure readers that it is well worth the trip.
For the last few years, the melodramas have centered on the charismatic outlaw known as Juanito Bandito. In this instance, Juanito is in search of the treasure of El Diablo, the pirate who has an interesting connection to Juanito: El Diablo is Juanito’s father. El Diablo has died and left behind his treasure to his heir. In addition to Juanito, there is another brother, another pirate called The Captain, searching for the treasure and determined to shoot Juanito. Add to this mix a witch, two fairly inept sidekicks, a lovely pirate damsel, a first mate who is more proper than scallywag, a do-good Sherriff, and the inevitable result is a lot of fun that happens onstage.
T. J. Davis is wonderful as Juanito. He has the charm and presence to grasp the audience and hold their attention whenever he is on stage. Davis has a fine singing voice and pretty smooth dance moves, especially in “El Rapo,” a rap song illustrating the awesomeness that is Juanito. Whitney Davis as Gratilda is also a standout. Her comic timing and awkward outbursts kept the audience laughing throughout the show. Indeed, it really is hard to single out a weak cast member. All were energetic and engaged in the show. My one complaint would be that Whitney Osborn Davis as Lila was a little too passive as the romantic heroine of the show. She is beautiful and has a lovely voice (plus one of the best British accents possible), but doesn’t have much expression beyond an attractive smile. However, this is a minor complaint.
The music, written by Davis, is of varying styles from rap to pop and Latin. The music was provided by recorded soundtrack with the addition of live piano. The piano player, Luke Shepherd, played an almost constant underscore the whole action. That is not an easy thing to do, and added the right mood to each scene. There seemed to be an inside joke well known to the regulars that involved a pounding rhythmic beat and pink bunnies. Every time this happened, the audience cheered, and even to the uninitiated, like myself, it was a pretty funny running gag.
Written by T. J. Davis, the script is great fun. It’s not perfect (What melodrama script is?), but it comes close. There are plot holes and some misdirected motivations, but this isn’t trying to rival Arthur Miller. Juanito Bandito is a rollicking melodrama complete with cheering the hero and booing the villain (although Juanito is such a fun and likeable villain, it’s hard to boo him). The sets by Tyler Stull and Ralph Cameron made for quick scene changes and fit each scene well. Costumes by the team of Lois Hugie, Mary Savage, Andrea Davis, and Erin Davis were usually appropriate and fit each character’s quirks. The one complaint I had was the chaps they gave Derek Davis as Sherriff Avery, who is a tall, strapping actor. But the chaps came just below his knees. They were far too small, and if it was done for comic effect, that was lost on me.
Directors Andrea Davis, T. J. Davis (is there anything he doesn’t do?), and Derek Davis keep the show moving quickly, and I saw no weak spots or drops in the pace of the play. In many shows of this type, the fourth wall is frequently broken (i.e., the plays produced by Desert Star Playhouse in Murray or the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake City), and the directors and cast emphasized the fact that they are breaking the wall. But Pickleville just breaks the fourth wall like it’s no big deal, and that makes it funnier to me. The premise going in is that the characters know they are in a play, and they know that you know they are in a play, so it just makes sense to interact with the audience. Even the scripted “mistakes” are subtle, which is too seldom the case in these types of shows. This all adds up to great fun, sore sides and tear-stained cheeks from all the laughter.
Judging by the soldout crowd on opening night, it is obvious that Pickleville Playhouse knows their audience. The cast and crew delivered a high quality show for the humble setting. Their ardent fans that know that summer isn’t complete without a visit to Garden City and an evening with Juanito Bandito. I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with them.