"There is a sucker born every minute" — P.T. Barnum
The charlatan is a mainstay of American musical theater. Think Barnum, 110 in the Shade and The Music Man. And the most charismatic of these can sway an audience just like the rubes in a hustle – making being had enjoyable. And, usually by the final act, a woman makes an honest man out of the con artist.
Roads Courageous, an original musical by Thomas Nyman and Kevin Parman, takes the trappings of those light-hearted musicals to tell a darker, more nuanced story. The real-life tale of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley is so bizarre it feels ripped out of Ripley's Believe It or Not! Brinkley (Roy Bumgarner) earned his millions during the Depression by surgically implanting goat gonads into the scrotum of impotent men to restore their sex drive and the ability to sire offspring.
The play opens as Brinkley's young son Johnny Boy (Karl Roach-Compton) listens mesmerized to his father's voice on a wind-up gramophone, aping the dog and trumpet logo of His Master's Voice, the early 20th-century music label (later on RCA Victor). His reverie is interrupted as a disillusioned adult Johnny (Trey Hoadley) recounts his father's rise and fall.
"The story is over," he sings. "It's almost done. And no one's happy and no one's rich/when life's in pieces/nothing rhymes and nothing fits. The price of winning paved with lies/makes life a bitch."
Brinkley is a chameleon. He is a family man, a medical "genius," a visionary, and a political candidate for the common man. Yet the grim details of his unethical and life-threatening experiments reveal another side.
The musical opts to use over-the-top humor (the fertility doc drops a goat gland on the floor during a procedure, wipes it off and continues, a pair of castrati goats frolic in gay abandon) and grim pathos (unknown numbers of his patients died from gangrene, infection or bled to death) to depict his megalomania. Whether the survivors actually benefited is left unanswered, and more importantly — whether he truly believed in his power to heal.
Roads Courageous also credits Brinkley with the inventive use of radio as a tool to reach the masses. He built a radio station to sell his fertility clinics and snake oil remedies and his candidacy for Governor of Kansas, as well. After he is found guilty of medical fraud, he relocates his clinics to Del Rio, Texas and builds a border radio transmitter and founds the station XER-AM in Mexico, with a million watts of power.
And yes, there is trouble in River City (Del Río en español) as the play unwisely focuses on the various XER radio personalities. While their stories and songs are quite entertaining, they ultimately sap the offstage Brinkley's brio — rendering him as impotent as his rubes.
When the spotlight returns to Brinkley, he is a defeated man at death's door. His wife Minnie (Sherry Gibbs Houston) and the adult Johnny have a have a heart-to-heart duet that ends tragically. Alone, Minnie bravely pulls herself together and delivers a finale that is arguably the play's best moment.
Nyman and Parman's original work has the potential to venture on the long and winding road that leads to the Great White Way. They, however, must be courageous enough to take a hard look at their labor of love and envision that sometimes less is more.
The Playhouse production is first class, from set design and musical direction (Geoffrey Waite) to a cast of top-rank actors and peerless direction (Tim Hedgepeth). In its present incarnation, it's well worth an evening out.
By Thomas W. Nyman and Kevin Parman
Directed by Tim Hedgepeth
8pm Fri-Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Russell Hill Rogers Theater
The Playhouse San Antonio
800 West Ashby
Through Mar 17