A Ride with Bob Showcases Top-Shelf Talent
As the torch bearer of Western swing for multiple generations now, I’m sure Ray Benson had numerous motivations for creating a musical about Bob Wills. As artists get older, it’s only natural for them to want to open up new mediums of expression. A Ride With Bob allows Benson to do that very thing while paying tribute to the King of Western Swing and giving the audience a more than adequate history lesson about one of the most influential musicians ever homegrown in Texas.
Average writing (driven by one liners about magical narcotic rides on Willie’s bus, third-rate Texas towns, and self-deprecating cracks about Benson’s receding hairline) is made up for by excellent music performances and top-shelf acting. It was like an Asleep At The Wheel concert, a variety show, and a history lesson all wrapped in one, with the music always being the primary focus, which kept the predominately 55+ crowd, dotted with cowboy hats, enthralled and cackling from curtain to curtain.
The story starts with Ray Benson meeting the spirit of Bob Wills on a bus ride to Tulsa, and then follows Wills from a boy picking cotton, to a young man cutting hair, to traveling with a medicine show and finally getting his break in music with the Light Crust Doughboys. Enter 1930′s-era robber baron Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a flour mill tycoon who gets sideways with Wills and chases the Doughboys out of work at various Texas radio stations until they land on their feet in Tulsa, which would act as home for the deposed Doughboy’s until Wills’ Texas Playboys come into being. Later Wills has a stint in Hollywood and gets a chance to crash The Grand Ole Opry with amplified instruments and a horn section.
Jason Roberts’ haunting portrayal of Bob Wills is more than convincing, and makes this musical worth seeing on its own. It’s the way Roberts holds the bow between breakdowns, the dead on cat calls that can be heard on all those old Wills records, the superb fiddle work, and the trademark Wills cigar and smile. Somehow Roberts has the wisdom to know how we’ve all envisioned Bob Willis in our heads over the years drawn only from the music, and maybe scant clips of grainy film.
The show was almost stolen by the two guest performers: fiddling throwback trio The Quebe Sisters and 15-year-old fiddling phenom Ruby Jane, who played Wills as a boy along with other parts, including a character not too far from reality–a kid fiddler that not much is expected of, but who delivers a jaw-dropping performance. An uproarious audience almost forced a Quebe encore right in the middle of the musical after their in-scene appearance.
Near the end, Ray Benson, who lightly narrates the play as the spirit of Wills, gets to join the prime-aged Wills on stage for a final number that turns into a full-fledged Ray Benson/Bob Wills concert with the various actors and guest musicians taking their turns. A Ride With Bob is entertaining and informative, and I can’t help but think a dream come true for Benson. He only met his musical mentor briefly before a recording session in 1973. Later that night Bob Wills suffered a debilitating stroke. Benson never really got to know Wills, let along share a stage with him, but through this musical he’s able to do both.
I saw A Ride With Bob at the Eisemann Center in Richardson, TX on Friday 7-16. The musical had its first run in 2005, and plays small series of shows a few times a year.
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