People rarely discuss the weird side of the Wild West. Then comes along a play about a mother forced to tie her son to the Last Mountain Lion in the West, a father who literally will not let his daughter leave the house until the day she gets married and the bizarre events that will eventually bring these two young lovers together. Add a pair of talking dachshunds and a madcap sheriff bent on solving everyone’s problems. Now, make it a musical that is as much mosh pit as it is hoedown and the West becomes a pretty strange place.
Austin-based theater troupe Rude Mechanicals brings its over-the-top, yet extremely knowing, antics to the Kirk Douglas Theatre for a second time this year, with just such a musical, “I’ve Never Been So Happy.” By no means is the play a modern masterpiece, but it certainly serves up some first-rate theater that artfully exploits its own childish surface to reveal a mature understanding of happiness.
Nevertheless, if the theatergoer was looking for a Broadway musical, the Rude Mechs’ production may disappoint. The music, while entertaining and lyrically playful, lacks the melodic allure that usually gets audience members humming show tunes as they walk out of the theater. The story is full of unexpected turns and bizarre situations that unfortunately deteriorate the integrity of the play’s story arc. The absence of any major conflict or force opposing the protagonists’ goals weakens an already fragile plot structure. Without this antagonistic force, the characters’ triumphs seem unfairly earned, which ultimately shortchanges the audience’s payoff when the happy ending finally comes.
Composer Peter Stopschinski’s score makes wide leaps between genres. The company shows off its range as it switches from operatic aria to bluegrass ballad, from acoustic folk to distorted death metal. Such stylistic oscillations coupled with lyrics fringing on the absurd are exactly what make the songs so forgettable.
Some songs and voices still stand out from others. Cami Alys as Julie, the mother who ties her son to the mountain lion, rises above the tepid swell of voices with her solos in “Magical Knot” and the title song, “I’ve Never Been So Happy.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Meg Sullivan and Lowell Bartholomee, who respectively play Annabellee and her brutish, possessive father, sing out with faltering pitch and dynamic. Their casting seems to belie the company’s preference for the right character over the right voice.
Song and story are not the show’s anchors. Rather, “I’ve Never Been So Happy” aims to create an atmosphere of intimacy between audience and cast, a blurring between stage production and neighborhood block party.
An extended 30-minute intermission, called a shindig, offers the audience a chance to play games, get dressed up in western garb, and interact with cast members. The festivities continue even after the play ends, adding credence to the final chorus’ imperative of “Let’s hang out forever.”
Rude Mechs flexes its largest muscle when it stretches the bounds of performance as a communal event. The company has an uncanny way of charging through its weaknesses and diving headlong into a dramatic space where themes are actually more engrossing than the story. “I’ve Never Been So Happy” successfully posits that people, both actors and audience, are most alive when bound by the ties of love, friendship and community.