IN JULY 1966 A CULTURAL icon was born—in Canyon, of all places. A few years earlier, some Amarilloans looking to boost interest in their corner of the state got in touch with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green. Would he please whip up one of his trademark outdoor musical dramas? Green obligingly penned a script chronicling the Panhandle’s pioneer past and named it, simply, Texas. The epic—with its cowman-versus-farmer conflicts, nods to pre-Anglo natives, and singing and dancing and flag waving—was a smashing success. It wasn’t the most genius or highfalutin theater, but it did tap into a Texan’s most valuable possession: his state pride. That it was performed in the stunning Palo Duro Canyon State Park—home of the second-largest canyon in the nation, thank you very much—didn’t hurt either.
But what’s a Texas icon if not a little rough around the edges? Like the Alamo and the Dallas Cowboys , Texas was in for bumpy times. After 36 summers, the cliché theatrics had grown tired, and ticket sales had slumped. So in 2002 the play’s producer, the Texas Panhandle Heritage Association, began tinkering with the script in an attempt to reexcite the locals. Not so thrilled were the folks at the Paul Green Foundation, who balked at the changes, and, well, all hell broke loose. Cue lawsuit. Cue countersuit. Meanwhile, some show had to go on. Enter Texas Legacies, stage right. But this new play, with its somber themes and historical precision, was more wrong than right, alternately bumming out and boring a still-dwindling audience. (Apparently, factual accuracy does not a more exciting musical make.)
So now, ladies and gentlemen, all the way back from the cutting room floor … the original Texas! Yes—the script war ended (the TPHA came away with all rights), the good people of Canyon clamored, and the musical has returned in all its refulgent hokeyness. Guided by an “if it ain’t broke, just tweak it a little bit” philosophy, new artistic director David Yirak did some minor line editing this year to get the whole shebang to just at two hours, but he otherwise left well enough alone. Fort Worth dance master Bruce Wood is choreographing the singing-and-dancing vignettes, but rest assured that it’s still a grassroots gig, with local talent well outnumbering “furiners” in the cast of sixty.
Now, with a third generation taking to Texas, the revival is on. From the half pound of brisket you get during the pre-show barbecue to the first act’s simulated t-storm complete with lightning bolt to the grand six-flags-and-fireworks finale, everything here is straight from the Go Big or Stay Home school of thought. Stereotypes are played up to great effect, sometimes intentionally (there’s lots of clogging and two-stepping), sometimes not (tourists have mistakenly snapped photos of locals in cowboy garb). Unbelievably corny it is. But even the most hardened cowpoke will have trouble staving off unabashed patriotism when a lone rider unfurls a large Texas flag as his steed races atop the stunning backdrop, a six-hundred-foot-high sandstone ridge, just as the sun sets. It’s a wistful reminder of the state’s wild roots, and it’s what makes Texas Texan. Of course, who qualifies as a Texan … well, that’s a whole ’nother article. Jun 2– Aug 19. Pioneer Amphitheatre, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, 12 miles east of Canyon on TX Hwy 217; 806-655-2181; texas-show.com JORDAN BREAL