Strip Search

Looking for Ozark culture amid the neon, glitter and traffic of Highway 76 in Branson

She's not the sexy thing with the plunging cleavage on the marquee outside. Even with makeup, bright lights, sparkling dresses and — at least in the second row — a view of her that is, embarrassingly, crotch-level — she's a plain, healthy-sized girl.

As Godsey says, she can sing some, dance some. She performs a tap number in white cowboy boots and a short, multifrilled skirt. An Irish stomp is pounded out later in the morning and, for the first-act finale, a swing number with the tall Uncle Tom hillbilly comedian, with spins and rolls over the shoulder executed with all the finesse of an RV parking.

Jennifer knows her audience. By the second number, some saccharine tune about the way things were in Grandpa's day, she is asking coyly, "Are there any grandpas in the audience today?" "Ho, ho," the grandmas chortle as all the geezers raise their hands. Like any good litigator, Jennifer never asks a question to which she doesn't already know the answer. She picks out one old man from the audience as her grandpa-for-the-day, or at least the song. She sings to him, asking whether it was true in the past that people were honest, courageous and strong, and that love back then was forever. She presses that creamy-white, healthy body against his and looks into his eyes and asks whether things really were that way in the past. "Indeed," he affirms.

Branson offers its own version of Mount Rushmore at the Hollywood Wax Museum.
Branson offers its own version of Mount Rushmore at the Hollywood Wax Museum.
Branson offers its own version of Mount Rushmore at the Hollywood Wax Museum.
David Burt
Branson offers its own version of Mount Rushmore at the Hollywood Wax Museum.

"Do you think if people turned to the Lord, we could get it back that way again?" she asks.

"Indeed," Grandpa-select says. The First Church of Christ of Iowa would form a holy mosh pit, if they could only get up.

Then Jennifer asks for a little kiss, but rather than the peck on the cheek she expected, Grandpa plants a wet one on those painted red lips. Jennifer's appeal is not wholly religious. She's early-morning Viagra for Branson grandpas.

There's a dour look that comes on musicians playing a morning show, a 3 o'clock matinee and an evening prime-time performance. Their faces grow tight — a face that struggles to look constantly friendly and sincere inevitably turns unfriendly and insincere. Laughing at all the potty jokes as if they've never heard them before, nodding and smiling at each heartfelt song that conveys little more than the absence of feeling. Whatever life was once inherent in the music has been bleached out of it. The musicians nod and smile, but they look as if they're in pain, held within the constraints of the mediocrity that has become their livelihood or their torment — or both.

They do look like dead people, ready for the slab — already embalmed, bronzed, painted, stuck in perpetual amity.

There's no denying Wayne Newton is an extraordinary showman, but he looks exactly like someone in suspended animation: skin tight, smile in place from years of playing to the crowd. Women rush to the stage with cameras, and he makes googly eyes as the flashes pop.

Newton's had a rough go of it in Branson: Not only tainted by the "crap" incident, Newton was also involved in a $20 million lawsuit against former partner Tony Orlando, and he suffers from chronic bronchitis, allergic to everything in the Ozarks. He displays a professional's courage, though, striving for the notes he thinks he can achieve in the grand finale, "MacArthur Park." As the final "Oh no's" crescendo, a wall of rain falls at the edge of the stage and Newton exits, climbing a golden-lit stair.

Newton is bringing the Vegas show to Branson, but without the Vegas bawdiness. Andy Williams, on the other hand, attempts another sort of classiness. (Williams also sings "MacArthur Park." In Branson it is possible to hear, within a 24-hour period, two versions of "MacArthur Park," two of "Jump Jive" and two of "Flight of the Bumblebee.") The Moon River Theatre ("I love it when he sings that," one women says on her way in) is tucked among shrubbery and a koi-filled stream. In the lobby, Williams displays some of his art collection, whether folks like it or not. There are sculptures by de Kooning and Lipschitz, contemporary abstract paintings, selections from Williams' Navajo-rug collection and his kimono collection.

No grinning emcee reads off the requisite announcements about who's celebrating an anniversary at the Moon River Theatre. An LED runs across the surface of the curtain with all the greetings. Sure enough, Williams opens with "Moon River," but he goes on to surprise everyone with his choice of contemporary material. It is strange to hear Andy Williams singing the Police hit "Every Breath You Take" but stranger still that he sings it so well, a man in his 70s belting out, "I feel so cold and I long for your embrace/I keep calling, baby, baby, please!"

Maybe the Moody Blues Theater isn't so far-fetched. Linda Ronstadt. Neil Diamond. Chicago. The Beach Boys. Can they do potty humor?

For all of Branson's laser-light-show bluster, the 40-years-running performance of The Shepherd of the Hills, the Harold Bell Wright classic that first gave expression to the Ozarks, is a spectacle of surprising sentimental power. Visitors can either take shuttle wagons or walk steep wooden steps down the hillside to the open amphitheater. The expanse of stage lies ahead, with the earth as floor and a giant tree that's been growing there longer than there's been a Shepherd of the Hills Theater. Although the events of the play do not pass in real time, they pass in real space. Clydesdale-drawn wagons cross the stage, sometimes at thrilling speed. Actors ride on horseback, guns blazing. One of the f/x highlights is the burning of a house, the flames intense and glowing in the dark night. At intermission, the audience is invited onto the stage grounds for a square dance, with music performed by local musicians, played sweetly, without frills or show.

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