Friday, January 28, 2022     Volume: 22, Issue: 48

Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on July 26th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 21 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 18, Issue 21

Great American Melodrama's 'The Tavern' brings comedy, mystery to Oceano


The history of George M. Cohan’s play The Tavern provides an illuminating insight into the mechanics of playwriting and Broadway politics in the 1920s. Originally penned by Cora Dick Gantt as a serious and twisty melodrama, Cohan’s version turned the piece into a satire, serving an edgy, before-its-time meta spoof of popular stage genres of the era.

The play marked an important turning point for Broadway at the time, recognized as perhaps one of the first instances in theater history a director and producer pulled the curtains back a bit to poke fun not just at the over-the-top absurdity of melodramas but of the machinations of theater itself.

Pictured left to right: The Governor (Bobby Kendrick), Freeman (Toby Tropper), and The Vagabond (Jeff Salsbury) are part of an eclectic cast spinning a mysterious and comedic story in the Great American Melodrama’s production of George M. Cohan’s 'The Tavern.'

Nearly 100 years later, and the play still manages to work as a tongue-in-cheek callout to itself. The Great American Melodrama in Oceano is presenting the play again this summer, with a standout cast that elevates the production.

The play centers on one dramatic, storm-filled night at a tavern, owned by Freeman (Toby Tropper) who lives with his son, Zach (Geoffrey Eggleston), and their servant, Sally (Rachel Tietz), who Zach is desperately in love with and determined to marry. Freeman and Zach stumble upon The Vagabond, played to perfection by Jeff Salsbury (who also delivers a dual powerhouse performance in the Melodrama’s The Karaoke Kid).

Ostensibly, the play is about a mystery involving the discovery of a strange woman found in a woodshed outside the tavern, who tells Freeman and his son she is going to the capital to tell Governor Lamson (Bobby Kendrick) some rather serious and shocking news. Later in the evening, the tavern is visited by said governor, accompanied by his daughter, Virginia (Sierra Wells), and her fiancé, Tom (Johnny Davison Jr.), who seem to have been “held up,” but are woefully reluctant to speak of it.

Within the first 15 to 20 minutes of the play it becomes abundantly clear that the audience isn’t being treated to a conventional mystery. The Vagabond, introduced initially as comic relief, suddenly begins to take on a more peculiar role, as commentator and sideline skeptic.

The Vagabond becomes a sort of internal voice of the most in-the-know kind of critic, loudly pointing out common dramatic devices the play is resorting to at key moments. It’s an ingenious technique and one that could only be pulled off by the best kind of comedic actor. If this play were set in 2017, The Vagabond would be a live-tweeter, snarkily and humorously commenting on directorial choices of the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

And it’s to The Vagabond, both in directing and acting choices, that the play owes much of its success. Salsbury, a dynamic performer with intense comedic chops, carries the play at the times when it frankly needs to speed up a bit. That’s not a ding on the production—the play has been noted historically by previous critics for being a bit slow on the build. To me, that has always seemed a deliberate measure on Cohan’s behalf; the director and seasoned producer was probably more than aware of what sitting through tedious, over-earnest live theater could be like. The Tavern’s Vagabond is a carefully constructed device who provides much needed comic relief. He intimates to the audience, “I know you’ve seen this before, but wait, there could be more to it.”

Don’t miss the mystery
The Great American Melodrama presents 'The Tavern' playing in repertoire with The Karaoke Kid. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 7 p.m., and Sundays at 6 p.m. More info: 489-2499.

This is not the first (nor likely the last) time the Melodrama has staged The Tavern, perhaps the perfect embodiment of the kind of neo-vaudevillian sentiment the troupe aims for. Suzy Newman’s direction places emphasis on just the right key moments to assure the audience doesn’t pick up on the twist too soon.

But it’s Renee Van Niel’s and Brandon PT Davis’ work on the costumes and set, respectively, that truly deserve special acknowledgement. There is a gorgeous, layered decadence to the backdrops and set pieces that never get too distracting or feel fake or forced. The costumes are also quite remarkable in their fusion of simplicity and attention to detail.

Ultimately, The Tavern is a fun and unique play even if you’re not privy to the intimate meta nature of Cohan’s subtle ribbing. To steal the words of The Vagabond, “I thank you for a few hours of delicious, delightful nonsense.”

Most of what Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose says is delightful nonsense. Contact her at

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