When it comes to Durango attractions, only the train has had a longer run than the Durango Melodrama & Vaudeville.
It has seen some changes since crowds first booed the villains and cheered the heros in 1962 on the stage of the Henry Strater Theatre, not the least of which is the name.
Melodrama opened the 2013 season Friday night with “Dirty Deeds at the Depot,” a traditional melodrama written by Gary McCarver. The play is similar to most that grace the Henry Strater stage. A heroine, Lacie Camisole (Megan Moran), must choose between her true love, Justin Tyme (Jonathan Rouse) and Dusty Trails (Jacob Sharf), a rancher from out of town. Lacie’s and Dusty’s fathers arranged the marriage, and the girl must choose between the two.
Of course, there also is the villainous Professor Mack (Jacob Buras), whose schemes threaten to bankrupt the California town of San Juan Capistrano and its shiny new train depot.
Classic melodrama, as much or more than any other theatrical style, relies on powerful performances. Moran, Buras and Sharf, who play several roles in the play, stand out. It is a form reliant on self-awareness, exaggerated movements and vocal delivery, which would seem ridiculous in most other settings but is an invaluable component of melodrama. Other actors quick to pick up on the trick are Marcelina Chavira as school marm Helen Highwater (really) and Leslie Hoxworth, who also takes on multiple roles.
I haven’t attended the melodrama in a couple of years, so I’m not sure if some of the subtle changes made by director Jenny Fitts Reynolds are new or not, but I like them. In the past, an evening at the melodrama consisted of the featured play followed by a traditional vaudeville show. Now the cast engages in vaudeville skits and songs before the show and after intermission, and the nightcap consists of just a few more numbers instead of a complete show. Different is good, in this case.
Also different is the absence of continuous piano accompaniment. Instead, musical host and Durango native Leah Nikula provides comic relief throughout the show while peppering in the piano for a few musical numbers in “Dirty Deeds.”
Friday’s opening night had a few glitches, most technical, and a few forgotten lines, but otherwise the summer season is off to a solid start. Early season shortcomings likely will be ironed out after a few six-night show weeks and visiting tourists by the busload will experience a Durango original.