PROVO — Bums! is a new musical dramedy with book, music, and lyrics by local playwright Stephen Gashler. It’s about Edward Pibbles, a young accountant from New York who has an early midlife crisis in the weeks leading up to the stock market crash of 1929. When Edward becomes eligible for a raise at work, he suddenly begins to wonder whether this is the life he wants: Rhubarbra Thwackum, his fiancée, pressured him into this rather unfulfilling career; his boss has unreasonable expectations for him; his wedding is looming ever nearer (although his relationship with Rhubarbra is entirely unromantic); and he’s never had the chance to travel or pursue his dream of becoming a jazz musician. Edward begins spending time with the homeless who roam the streets of New York, forming a special relationship with Dirty Dan, the self-proclaimed “King of the Bums.” Dirty Dan urges Edward not to throw his life away, but with all of this pressure, Edward thinks it might be better to run off and start over, living his life in a teepee in the woods.
When she finds out that Edward is considering quitting his job, Rhubarbra gives Edward an ultimatum: to settle down and marry her, or she walks. Things are further complicated when Edward’s boss, Mister Engerman, becomes paranoid that Edward is looking for a job at a new firm. Terrified of losing his best employee, Engerman sends Weasel, one of his lesser employees, to tail Edward and convince him to stay with Engerman Enterprises. Everything comes to a head during a disastrous dinner with Edward’s parents, when Weasel accuses Edward of wanting to become a bum. Mr. and Mrs. Pibbles are horrified, Rhubarbra breaks off their engagement, and Edward begins his life on the streets.
And that’s not the end of the play–there is much more. Without adding spoilers, know that Edward eventually lands in jail; there’s a courtroom scene; and lots and lots of epiphanies. With its quirky characters, absurd plot, and abundance of zingers, Bums! reminded me of You Can’t Take It With You—it had that undefinable air of endearing zaniness that marks a true classic. But while the characters were charming and the script was full of hilarious one-liners, Bums! felt like it was still a few drafts shy of reaching its full potential.
To start with it was long. If you thought my summary was long, keep in mind that I left out most of the subplots. I think Stephen Gashler could stand to do the same. Among other things, the Beula Brummel character, who lands Edward in jail, felt completely extraneous (she was only in about four scenes). There was a half-romance between Rhubarbra and Weasel that didn’t go anywhere, and the many musical numbers with the bums felt repetitive by the end of the show. It also seemed like Edward decided and then un-decided to be a bum several times, which made his final, climactic decision feel less significant. Overall, I think Bums! could benefit from a date with a merciless editor.
I thought that the music was catchy but disjointed. Most of the numbers were musical theatre-y, but a few of them were jazzy (“Forget About It”, “Spaz”, “Boring, Serious Businessman”), and a couple of them sounded more like rock anthems (“Edward’s Dream”, “Rhubarbra’s Dream”, the end of “The Kingdom of the Dwarves”). I don’t think that one style was better than the others, but the abrupt shifts did pull me out of the story. I think the musical would feel much more cohesive if Stephen Gashler would focus on keeping the music in one genre.
That being said, “The Corporate Gods”, “Half-Eaten Burger”, and “Boring, Serious Businessman” were great songs. All weekend I kept getting little snippets stuck in my head, even though I don’t know these songs very well at all.
Directed by Adam Cannon, the overall production of Bums! was enjoyable. The ensemble had a great energy about it. The cast members successfully made the tiny stage at the Echo Theatre look like it was packed with city slickers, and they clearly put their hearts and souls into this show. They lived up to that zany, comedy-classic standard I mentioned earlier.
Bridger Beal played a sympathetic and charming Edward, while Caitlyn Lunceford’s Rhubarbra was complex and engaging. The two had great chemistry, especially when they were arguing. That might sound odd, but when they were fighting, they seemed like a real couple. The brilliant moment they shared when Rhubarbra was grilling Edward about being a bum in the scene where they break up can’t be beat. Lunceford set the pace so Beal could deliver his line about theoretically being ready to settle down and have children with perfect timing.
Stephen Gashler was fantastic as Mr. Engerman. It is easy to take an angry character like Mr. Engerman too far to the scary side and lose the humor, but Stephen Gashler played him with a skillful balance of wackiness and grumpiness. Steve Whitehead and Teresa Gashler were hysterical as Mr. and Mrs. Pibbles. They had some of the best lines in the show. I could go on and on about the other actors and their comedic prowess, but suffice it to say the show was well cast. Not one person mugged or hogged the spotlight or tried to upstage anyone else. There was an easy, comfortable rapport between the cast members, and as a result, the ensemble shone.
Of course, the production was not without its faults. The low budget impacted the quality of the costumes (by Leisl Cope), hair, and makeup (by Emmaly Canterberry). It was difficult to tell which decade we were in because of inconsistencies with the hair and makeup, costumes, music, and set (designed by Randy and Lara McNair). And while the cast did a good job of making the script as it stands come to life, there were parts of the show that were confusing (e.g., “Spaz”, along with some of the other extraneous bum songs; Dirty Dan’s tendency to flip-flop between loving his life as king of the bums and begging Edward not to throw his life away; the brief moments where the characters broke the fourth wall to mention the fact that they were in a musical). There were a few technical hiccups, like all of the lights on one electric line going out halfway through a scene. Additionally, the programs didn’t have any information about the story, so I had no idea how long the show was going to be or what it was really going to be about. But none of those issues were deal-breakers; I left the theater smiling and hungry for more original pieces like this one.
It was rough around the edges, but the cast and crew of Bums! put on a great show. It’s exciting to see theatre written and produced by local playwrights, and Stephen Gashler shows all the promise of a truly great artist. If he takes the time to refine this script, I think it could become something special.