The King Rides On: Country Swing’s Bob Wills @ The Eisemann

The band from A Ride With Bob

“Deep within my heart lies a melody….”  The lyrics from Texas Swing icon Bob Will’s famous 1940 song “San Antonio Rose” sum up the essence of the tribute musical “A Ride With Bob”, now playing at Richardson’s Eisemann Center through New Year’s Eve. As much as the two-act show portrays key events in the West Texas born artist’s life, it celebrates on a grand scale his musical achievements and impact, with affection and inspired professional performance. Don’t know Bob Wills or much about Western Swing music? “A Ride With Bob” will keep you fully entertained while filling in his life’s details.

The personal project of guitarist/lead singer Ray Benson (multiple Grammy-awarded leader of the Western Swing band Asleep At The Wheel and the Texas legislature’s 2011 Texan of the Year and Arts Medal winner), the show’s high point offers seven bow-poppin’, nationally recognized fiddlers gracing the stage all at once, ranging from age 10 to senior citizen. Add to that impressive bunch upright bass, keyboards and drums and a top-flight horn section (with University of Texas’ former jazz program director Bob Meyer on trumpet and tenor sax); it’s a full-blown orchestra with toe-tapping steel guitar swing sound livening up the Eisemann’s Hill Performance Hall, guaranteed to charm the dust right off your cowboy boots.

The show uses flashback perspective as dramatic device. The ghost of Bob Wills (Marco Perella, also show choreographer) drops in on a despondent Ray Benson on his band’s tour bus. Together they swap yarns about musicians’ lives and relive Bob’s meteoric, hard-fought rise to Hollywood movie and Grand Ole Opry fame as it plays out before them, while seated on a cutaway of the bus interior on stage right. Madisonville 4thgrader Colby Sheppard plays the young Jim Robb Wills, “sitting in” on fiddle for his hopelessly drunk father at gigs. Performing Western swing since age 3, Sheppard has no trouble keeping up with the cast’s more than twenty adult professionals, in stage presence or musicianship terms.

Jason Roberts as Bob Wills

Professional actor and fiddler Jason Roberts steps in as adult Bob Wills and wows the audience for the show’s duration with the style, swagger and trademark “Ahaa!” Wills is known for, as well as nimble, tuneful fiddle playing. The ensemble includes Austin’s B. Iden Payne Award winner Timothy Curry as Wills’ ever-present conscience, a cotton-picker from childhood days with a glorious deep singing voice. Stage and film actor Steve Uzzell keeps the plot humor and conflict sailing along with his broad portrayals of a fervent tent meeting bottled cure peddler, a disreputable businessman who made Wills’ life hell for years and a gay Hollywood film director. This production of “A Ride with Bob” also features the award-winning Quebe Sisters Band, a prominent contemporary touring trio that follows in Bob Wills’ Western Swing tradition. Twenty Western Swing numbers, many written by Bob Wills or made famous by his band, fly by in smooth complement to the biographical overview. The show ends by bringing its audience to its feet in happy, swaying, clapping unison with the final tunes. This colorful, harmonious tribute to a great musical artist could put Scrooge in a fine mood for 2012. No doubt about it, Waylon Jennings said it best in 1974. “Bob Wills is still the king.”

For tickets, visit http://www.eisemanncenter.com

Review as posted on criticalrant media partner Theater Jones

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