Branson: A Visit to the ‘Redneck Las Vegas’

Though it’s not far from my hometown of Kansas City, I had never been to Branson, Mo., at least not since it became the entertainment capital of the Ozarks. But having just finished writing a book on Las Vegas entertainment, I figured it was high time to at least lay eyes on the town sometimes called the redneck Las Vegas. So I made a quick trip there last week. 

For a New Yorker — or even someone driving down from Kansas City, 200 miles away — Branson is another world. It’s the heart of the Bible belt, where every AM radio station plays either Christian music or right-wing talk, and where my first sight on driving into Springfield, the big town nearby, was a couple of roadside stands selling Trump merchandise.  On investigation, I discovered that the President was arriving on Friday for a rally at the local arena, so I guess you’d call them pop-up stores. But this is definitely Trump country.

I have a feeling the entertainment in Branson has seen better days. There are lots of big names here, but few big stars. Most of the shows, at the couple of dozen theaters lining route #76 and environs, are tributes to stars — 50 Years of Kenny Rogers, The Glen Campbell Songbook, Beach Boys California Dreamin’, and others celebrating the music of Dolly Parton, John Denver, Fleetwood Mac, Elvis Presley, ABBA, and more. A few real live stars do come through Branson, usually for one nighters  —  Tanya Tucker, Michael Bolton, Tony Orlando, and Charley Pride are among those scheduled for the next few weeks. The Oak Ridge Boys seem to be in Branson a lot, and comedian Yakov Smirnoff, of all people, has his own theater.  As I said, strange country. 

To get a real taste of Branson,  I probably should have spent my sole night in town at one of the many country-music variety shows, featuring large extended performing families, like the Haygoods, the Duttons, the Hughes Brothers, and the Presley clan (no relation — at least I hope not). But as a snobby New York theater critic, I decided to go for one of the big-city offerings: a revue called Broadway’s Greatest Hits, which alternates with a Sinatra tribute show at the King’s Castle Theater. 

It’s not exactly the Broadway revue you’d see on Broadway. Production values are fairly rudimentary, and there’s little attempt at organization or creative presentation: a cast member simply announces that she’s going to sing “Memory” from Cats — and then proceeds to sing “Memory” from Cats. There’s a nod to Broadway’s past, with a few selections from Oklahoma and West Side Story, but mostly the show concentrates on musicals of more recent vintage (A Chorus Line, Phantom of the Opera, Wicked), and shows familiar from the movies or pop-music charts, like Grease and Mamma Mia.  I kind of doubt that many people in the audience even knew that Mary Poppins actually was a Broadway musical — but here it is, chimney sweeps and all.  

Unlike Las Vegas, where tribute shows like this are generally held to an hour or so (to make sure customers don’t stay away from the casino for too long), Branson (which doesn’t have gambling) lets its shows run for a full two hours, with an intermission.  A long one, in this case — 20 minutes, announced with a reminder that popcorn is available in the lobby and souvenirs in the gift shop. But I don’t mean to be condescending. Broadway’s Greatest Hits was reasonably entertaining, competently performed by a road-company-quality troupe of a dozen singers and dancers.  I admired them for taking on several good numbers from Cabaret and Chicago (including the tricky “Cell Block Tango”) and doing a fair approximation of the Bob Fosse dance moves. And watching them do the complicated, fast-paced, hand-jiving choreography for the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” number from Mary Poppins reminded me of how good Matthew Bourne’s work was on that underrated Disney show.

This is Branson, so after the show the stars hang out in the lobby and sign autographs.  It’s at least one way to find out who they are — since there’s no program, no cast list, and the performers are only acknowledged (from the stage just before the finale) with their first names. Too bad. But if Maggie makes it to Broadway, I’d go see her again.

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