There's a problem that often plagues the biography or tribute show. When the focus of a show is an important, revolutionary, or game-changing individual, it's often impossible to live up to the standard set by such an icon. Thankfully A Ride With Bob is the exception and not the rule. Asleep at the Wheel's love letter to Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing, is a vibrant, fun, feel-good time.
With a script by Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel along with Anne Rapp and Director CK McFarland, A Ride With Bob follows the life and career of Bob Wills as told though a conversation between Benson himself and the spirit of Bob Wills, played to perfection by the affable and witty Marco Perella. Though the script has some moments that are a bit hokey, such as Benson's discovery that their bus driver is really Bob's ghost and a parody of Wills' less-than-spectacular film career, it is overall a commendable piece of work from Benson et al, and major kudos must be given for their honest depiction of Bob Wills. No effort is made to canonize Wills; his ego, arrogance, alcoholism, and string of failed marriages all have their turns in the spotlight. Their decision to include some references to American History-such as the strained race relations in the post-Civil War South, mentions of prohibition, and a cameo appearance of Bonnie and Clyde-adds to the enjoyment and give a little added flavor to the show.
But let's cut to it. The reason to see this incredible show is to hear Bob's music played by some of the finest musicians in western swing, and the show is practically stuffed with number after number. Some highlights include "Take Me Back to Tulsa," "Cherokee Maiden," and "San Antonio Rose," all played by Asleep at the Wheel with incredible respect and reverence for their idol and his Signature Sound. Of the band, the stand out is clearly Jason Roberts as Young Bob Wills. Roberts captures Wills' energy and essence with ease, an astonishing feat for anyone but completely remarkable considering that the role of Wills markEd Roberts' acting debut back in 2005. Roberts' acting chops nearly rival his stellar skills with the fiddle. As 10-year-old Wills, Colby Sheppard is absolutely amazing. Sheppard is certainly a young musician to watch, as is Ruby Jane Smith, the 16 year old fiddling prodigy who has a delightful moment with Roberts.
And if Wills' music and a top-notch team of musicians isn't enough, every other aspect of this production is as pretty as a San Antonio Rose. The supporting cast of actors is sensational, particularly Steve Uzzell as the comical Dr. Miracle and Pappy O'Daniel and Timothy Curry as Old Man Bridges, Marco Perella's choreography is stunning, the scenic design by Christopher McCollum is a charming mix of old, rustic road signs, and the direction by CK McFarland is polished and tight.
Since that shows debut in 2005, A Ride With Bob has made tour stops all over the country, and it's clear why. With its incredible cast, its fantastic musicians, and its engaging subject matter, this is one gem of a show that has tour written all over it. Musical geniuses the likes of Bob Wills are exceedingly rare, and bio-musicals that are this exuberant, energetic, and rousing are rarer still.
RUN TIME: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
A RIDE WITH BOB plays the Topfer Theatre at 202 South Lamar, Austin, TX now thru Sunday, February 24th. Performances are Thursdays - Sundays at 7:30pm with additional performances on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm. Tickets are $80-$150. For tickets and more information, visit www.zachtheatre.org.
Top photo: Jason Roberts as Young Bob Wills in A Ride With Bob. Middle photo: Ray Benson (L) as Himself and Marco Perella (R) as The Spirit of Bob Wills in A Ride With Bob. Bottom photo: The cast of A Ride with Bob.