Taproot's Chaps! Serves High Tea in a Cowhide Canteen
Chaps!, directed by Karen Lund and extended at Taproot through Aug. 18, is a pertinent August reminder that the classic hero of summer sunsets and starry nights is the American Cowboy. Or rather, the British one.
Written in 1995 by Ashland, Oregon-based husband and wife team Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner, Chaps! is set in a 1944 BBC radio studio where a group of highly-strung Brits is awaiting the arrival of American song sensation Tex Riley and his herd of singing cowboys. But at five minutes before air time the group’s manager arrives (a charming Caitlin Macy-Beckwith) and it becomes apparent that the American singers are lost on the trail. Not wanting to disappoint the Allied troops assembled for the live broadcast, the British chaps don chaps and armed with scripts and a backup bluegrass band, embark on an unrehearsed, two-hour long cowboy song show.
Taproot’s thrust stage makes for a cozy radio studio, equipped with a tea table, union jack, vintage microphones, and a light-up on air sign and applause teleprompter—not that the studio audience needs telling twice. The show’s premise leads to a perfectly pitched mashup of cheesy American cowboy music and cheeky British humor—picture Roy Rogers banging two coconut halves together as he rides an imaginary horse into the sunset. Cultural digs are taken at fellas on both sides of the pond and hilarity results from the myriad of mispronunciations and misunderstandings (“It’s always nice to meet a fellow cow pusher” “Puncher” “I’d rather kiss her, but if you insist!”).
As droll, BBC broadcaster Leslie, Ian Lindsay is a sarcastic delight, delivering deadpan “wahoos,” clad in a bowler hat, furry chaps and a vest that looks as though it was stolen from Toy Story’s Woody. Costumer Sarah Burch Gordon provides the cast with a fine array of chaps, cowboy hats and western button-downs all fringed, spangled and kitsched-out to perfection. Macy-Beckwith is straight out of a vintage rodeo poster, and with her wide smile and sunny southern energy she wrangles Leslie and the rest of his BBC comrades—the blithering, asthma-ridden producer-turned exuberant ventriloquist dummy (Sam Vance), Hammy soap-opera actor (William Hamer) and American—er, British—guitar-playing stud (Simon Pringle).
The cast’s harmonies are as sweet and smooth as molasses baked beans, and old cowpoke standards like “Jingle Jangle Jingle” and “Ride, Cowboy, Ride” are a pleasure to revisit, even when comically distorted by English accents. The show’s greatest dose of Pithon flair comes from sound effects man, Stan (Solomon Davis), a soldier discharged with PTSD who skitters around behind a cluttered upstage desk creating plexi-glass cattle stampedes and clapboard gunshots, occasionally chiming in his two cents via slide whistle.
Stan’s army fatigues aren’t the only indication there’s a war on. When rousing yippee-ki-yays are interrupted by the sirens of an air raid, broadcasters and audiences alike are reminded of a more sinister plain where empty bullet shells blow instead of tumbleweeds.
Ultimately, Taproot’s upbeat Chaps! broadcasts a strong moral: whether there be singing cowboys gone MIA or soldiers missing in action, the show must go on. And nothing keeps up morale better than having your feet in the stirrups, a song in your heart, and a loyal group of chaps riding by your side.
Pictured above: Caitlin Macy-Beckwith, Simon Pringle and Ian Lindsay in Chaps!. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.