The Red River Opry bills itself as having the "most talented cast this side of Branson, Missouri." The reference is to the famous Ozarks resort town that pioneered family-owned-and-operated country-music theatres, and it's a loose comparison, at best. In earlier decades, 30-odd theatres across the country showcased the country talents of their namesake families--much like the fine Barleen Family Country Music Dinner Theatre in Apache Junction, whose members are, in fact, real ex-Bransonites. The retread, overcrowded Branson, unfortunately, has become more of a place where old stars like Andy Williams and the Osmonds build monuments to themselves and pass off slightly twangy pop music as country.

The 12-member "Red River Revue" cast, however, has no singularly shining star and ain't no family. It is, indeed, a professional and polished ensemble, but the show itself doesn't really resemble the big-name-oriented modern Branson. That's good news. Even better is the Red River Opry's future promise.

The freshly built, pinkish, domed theatre on the corner of Mill and Washington in Tempe houses 1,000 seats, none farther than 80 feet from the stage. While it dubs itself as Arizona's Country Music Show, it actually features a permanent troupe performing a scripted blend of family-friendly crossover country and pop, punctuated with a bit of comedy. Two one-hour sets are split by a 30-minute intermission, which gives patrons ample time to score munchies like minipizzas, large salted (or not) pretzels, hot dogs and popcorn and chase them down with beer, wine or soda from the brightly lighted concession stand. Prices are reasonable.

The cast features a number of genuine Valley music-biz pros, including the most pleasant surprise of the evening: J. David Sloan, proprietor of that Grand Avenue landmark, Mr. Lucky's, and the revue's emcee. Those who have two-stepped to Sloan's house band at Mr. Lucky's, Western Bred (which he will continue to lead with song and fiddle), will appreciate his new role as host of the Red River Revue. With his naturally affable, down-home patter and experienced leadership, Sloan made the Red River Opry's inaugural performance last Friday night smoother than anyone had a right to expect.

Not that there weren't a couple wobbles along the way. Following an opening and not-real-funny comedy skit, local singer Vikki Rae Jordan launched into a respectable version of "Down at the Twist and Shout," the recent Mary-Chapin Carpenter hit. The first half continued to display the band's musical wares, highlighted by Ed Black's stellar steel work (especially on "The South's Gonna Do It Again"), Mike Breen's banjo picking and the keyboarding of Brian Page and the Next veteran Andy Baade.

Singer Michelle Nicolo, however, seemed to have been the victim of some opening-night nerves, as her take on the ballad "Letting Go" was uneven and tentative. Likewise, Cajun-born-and-bred Terry Thompson's tender tenor failed to capture a couple of hernia-inducing high notes in "Still the One." Yet in both cases, the performers gained momentum as the evening progressed, particularly as they provided excellent harmonies throughout.

Unable to find the right key, however, was the revue's comedy--easily the shock of the night, since the purveyor of the funny stuff is Ben Tyler, the artistic director, actor and writer of Mill Avenue Theatre fame. The skits were much too long and the eventual punch lines--especially the ones regarding gunplay on Phoenix streets and what a bear does in the woods, heh-heh-heh--were hardly family fare and most certainly not worth the wait.

The first half of the show (not counting the tee-shirt shilling) neared an end with a medley of Western songs. Again, J. David Sloan nearly stole the set with his "Whoopie-Ti-Ki-Yo" and "Cool Water," his deep voice most pleasantly reminiscent of Marty Robbins. It was a smarmy, horrific Rex Allen Jr. song, "I Love You, Arizona," however, that garnered the greatest cheer. Finally, a twin-fiddle tussle between Sloan and 1991 Arizona State Fiddle Champion Mike Cirillo--punctuated by some banjo and steel--on "Orange Blossom Special" would have benefited from some brevity.

In fact, the two full-hour halves--as generous as that is--are just too doggone long. Toward the end of the first half, many in the audience--virtually all adults on opening night--were fidgeting, some not waiting for the set to end as they headed for hot dogs. The second half of the revue was marked by an opening, rockish medley that began with "Blue Suede Shoes" and ended with "The Heart of Rock and Roll," with well more than a baker's dozen of half-minute snippets of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Buddy Holly and others in between. It was truly an endurance test. Soon following was a series of gospelish and patriotic tunes that would have made Pat Robertson swell with pride. The show ended with Lee Greenwood's anthem "God Bless the USA." After bowing to a standing ovation, J. David announced that "Budweiser is proud to be a sponsor" of the Red River Opry, then admonished all to "drink responsibly"--perhaps the funniest line of the night.

Credit goes to the creators and conductors of the Red River Opry--owner Scott Eller, the son of ex-Circle K chieftain Karl Eller, and the producer and director, Nashville studio pro Mark Prentice. The cast--the balance of which includes Herndon Brothers vet Duane Wriston on guitar, Dave Rose on percussion and Jim Gerkin on bass--passed through opening night with high marks. And while the entertainment is most generously delivered, the show's Pooh-Bahs might consider, however, trimming about 15 minutes from each half--shortening the medleys and replacing the long, lumbering comedic interludes with zippy (and considerably more kid-friendly) one-two funny-bone punchers. At $12.50 for adults and $7.50 for kids--with group discounts and free fun for tykes of 2 and under--it is still a fine deal. As the show changes bit by bit throughout the year, a completely new performance will evolve in a year's time.

Best of all is the venue itself. Named after another Eller family enterprise (and despite its location on the Salt River), there is much to like here. Although it's a smoke-free building, the outside area rivals America West Arena's puffing patio in size and provides a concession window--a nice, considerate touch. The bathrooms are large and easily accommodated the natural needs of the crowd. There's plenty of well-lighted parking. The sound is truly excellent and the seats are all keepers. The 50-foot-wide stage will lend itself easily to theatrical productions with its curtains and proscenium. On nights when the Opry is off or on hiatus, management hopes to attract big-name entertainment. With the demise of so many middlin'-size houses of late, the Red River Opry could become a real hootenanny.

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