SALT LAKE CITY–To all those fans who begged and pleaded with Pickleville Playhouse to bring their production to Salt Lake City, I thank you. I had the great pleasure of seeing Who Shot Juanito Bandito, a Cache County original, 10 minutes from my house, downtown at the Rose Wagner Theater. I hope they continue to visit Salt Lake, but I will drive up north if I have to.
This Bandito script is actually the fourth of the series from Pickleville, which resides in Gardenville near Bear Lake . And there will be a fifth next summer. In Who Shot, the guapo villain Juanito Bandito is on the verge of becoming the most famous bank robber in the country. A U.S. Marshall is sent to capture Bandito dead or… not dead, but the annoying marshall is really no match for the clever thief; perhaps because he’s distracted by Amelia Everlight, the lovely London reporter. Bandito, interestingly enough, is a bit of a romantic, and finds his foe in the relationship between Sheriff Jake Lawson and his beloved Amelia.
When the curtain opened to an empty stage with only a piano player off to one side, I felt nervous that the small-town show would feel out of place in the Rose Wagner. But on came Cory Keate, who welcomed us and warmed up the audience; his enthusiasm made the environment feel close and comfortable. Then Juanito Bandito showed up to deliver his opening monologue, and within seconds, the audience was in stitches. It was not difficult to get wrapped up in this show.
There was a wonderful variety of music styles, from Latin to Rap, to a Hannah-Montana-type Pop number. Most of the music was provided by a sound track and enhanced by the live piano player. I loved that I didn’t know what to expect; each song was a pleasant surprise for the audience. And the singing voices were all strong–no complaints from me. I particularly loved Maxine’s singing (Whitney Davis), because the character has a high, whiney voice and she carried it into the songs. It wasn’t grating or annoying in the least, but really just pierced through the accompaniment, adding punch to each number. Amelia (Rosa Gardner) had a wonderful voice as well. I loved her in “It’s So You”; the smiley smitten-ness of Amelia and Jake was contagious. The girls outshone the boys just a little, I admit. Oh, other than Juanito. That wonderful Juanito.
The average audience member isn’t coming home to dissect the show and write a review about it. That fellow or female is going to remember the laughs, the music, and go to bed happy. But, dang it, when I sat down to think about the production I found a few issues. Like–the plot’s not brilliant. I mean, the whole premise of robbing that last bank, that they set up so well in the first few scenes, basically dissolves. Opposition shows up and Juanito forgets his intention to rob a bank? We are offered no real explanation here and that seems odd to me. Also, the dogged persistence of the Marshall as he pursues Amelia kind of got on my nerves. I believe that’s the intention, since he is an annoying character, but he got very burdensome by the end. I think I’d have preferred that he moved on from “wooing” Amelia, changing his motive to ‘If I can’t have her, nobody can.’ Just a thought.
Second, I really felt like the show was good enough to leave its crutches behind–crutches like “Boo the villain, cheer for the hero.” The audience was laughing, crying, rolling in the aisles–they didn’t need any coaxing to participate further. It just created unnecessary pauses. And it’s a bit of a weird situation because I loved the villain and couldn’t really stand his valiant “enemy.” (There were two lawmen out to get Juanito, really, but that darn Marshall (Jordan Rodd Brown) made me crazy.) So, if you want me to boo and cheer, I’m going to cheer for Juanito.
Another crutch, to me, were the Mormon-y jokes. Funny, yes, but again, they really weren’t needed. This show, unlike those at Desert Star or the Off Broadway Theater (which each produce a similar kind of production), can totally stand on its own merit.
But I don’t want to pick the show to pieces because I loved it. My husband was in tears for the majority of the production; I had to instruct him to breathe.
The true genius behind this show is the character of Juanito Bandito, which was created, written, and performed by T.J. Davis. Juanito is the most loveable and hilarious despicable criminal I have ever seen. T.J. Davis has given Bandito such a specific dialect, mixing Spanish and English, with clever pronunciation and some really great taglines. I would pay to see an hour-long Juanito Bandito monologue, if I could get tickets, since it’d probably be sold out. Seriously. His facial expressions, his body movements, his singing — I know that I’m practically proposing marriage to this character, but really, he is that good. T.J. Davis is a theatrical hero in my eyes.
But he’s not the only Davis that I admire. I mentioned the super-talented Whitney Davis above, who played the villainess Maxine. The director is Andrea Davis, who also runs the theater.
I need to gush a little about the choreographer, Sharli Davis King. King’s choreography was great, and the cast executed it sharply. I wish I knew more technical words to elaborate on this, but I’ll just say that King used the stage well, and made each number visually interesting. I particularly enjoyed the Latin choreography in “My name is Juanito Bandito” and the hard-hitting rap number “Dirty Deed.” There was a moment during the final number when I swore I was watching moves from the Backstreet Boys or N’Sync and it made me smile so big. It was so energetic and fun; there were so many times in the show that I said to myself, “Amen, choreographer. Amen.”
Pickleville has a long heritage (which you can learn about on their website) and it is very much a theater run by the family. It’s no podunk little theater, though, because their costumes (Lois Hugie and Erin Davis), their sets, the background tracks (Tim Jordan, Sound Tech) for their show all looked and sounded professional. Their website and print material are good quality, as well.
It’s really a great type of comedy that Pickleville is producing. There are moments when it feels like the actors are improvising or that something went wrong, but the show is written in such a way that it’s difficult to know when these moments are actually planned. There was a part at the end of the rap number when Bandito is making some suggestions to his evil sidekicks (Whitney Davis and Derek Davis) about making the song more positive. Every person on the stage and nearly everyone in the audience was laughing; it was kind of a great moment. Once or twice in the show, I thought that the discussion was getting long (usually it involved the Marshall). At those times I wanted to say, “C’mon, let’s get moving,” but for the most part, the play clipped along.
I personally enjoy a good mix of Spanish and English and a healthy dose of “Oh my heck”s. I burned a whole bunch of calories, laughing out loud, thanks to Pickleville and their amazing cast and crew. If you can’t make it up to Logan this weekend, look forward to next summer when Juanito Bandito returns, and hopefully returns to Salt Lake!
Update: The February 18, 2012 performance of Who Shot Juanito Bandito? is available to watch for free during March 2012 at this web page.