‘Wagon Wheels West’

Somerset Valley Playhouse’s family musical takes place ‘when the buffalo were roaming and the wagon wheels were groaning.’

By: Stuart Duncan
   Sometimes a casual glance at the program can be misleading. Wagon Wheels West at Somerset Valley Playhouse was described as part of "the family series," so when a look at the program showed character names such as "Chuck Wagon," "Wild Bill Hiccup" and a dance hall girl named "Sue Flay," one feared the worst. Further down the list were the Hamm sisters, Virginia and Glazed, and the heroine was named "Candy Kane." Not much hope there.
   Moreover, the program indicated that the action takes place in the town of Vinegar Bottle, along the Santa Fe Trail "when the buffalo were roaming and the wagon wheels were groaning."
   It just goes to show you that perhaps you can’t always trust the program. Because once the show started and three-dozen performers got to strut their stuff (after an overly long and pretentious overture with a song that we have never heard and probably can easily dismiss), everyone, audience and cast alike, began to have fun.
   Tim Kelly’s script includes every cliche ever written in a Western melodrama and Bill Francoeur’s tunes seemed to have been swiped from an old Western songbook. No matter — after a few minutes, you realize you are smiling and so is everyone else.
   Director Alison Quairoli has been on stage many times, but this is her first time at the helm and she clearly knows what she is doing. Lots of extra touches spice up scenes and there is some terrific choreography (especially in a number titled "True Blue"). But her best work was in the casting of the show: plenty of veteran comics who can trample off silly dialogue and make it sound brand new. Derek Mazukiewicz makes a handsome hero, plus he can sing (and dance too). Kristen Turner does a fine job as the pretty blond heroine. Tom Riti has a wonderful time as the villain of the piece and earns his boos and hisses. Andrea Barra plays Sue Flay, the dance hall girl with a heart of mold.
   There is plenty of talent all down the cast list: Harriet Trainor as the editor of the local paper; Dorothy Calkin Linguiti as the vocal local activist; Beverly Thompson and Amy Karpowich as the Hamm sisters. But stealing the show is the gang that couldn’t shoot straight — Sam Rosalsky, Mike Sunberg and Ellen Beagle. When they team up for "Lonely Coyotes," the show-stopper has been reached.
Wagon Wheels West continues at Somerset Valley Playhouse, 689 Amwell Road, Hillsborough, through Jan. 22. Performances: Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets cost $10. For information, call (908) 369-7469. On the Web: www.svptheatre.org