Tuna Does Vegas
Taking the Tuna crew to Sin City was a huge gamble, but we end up bigger winners than losers
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Nov. 2, 2007
Tuna Does Vegas
Paramount Theatre, through Nov. 11
Running Time: 2 hr, 15 min
You know something is different when Bertha Bumiller starts talking about putting on a swimsuit. After all, the helmet-haired hausfrau who seems to have emerged from the womb in a polyester pantsuit is a hard-shell Baptist and card-carrying member of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order. For her even to contemplate showing a little skin indicates some cosmic shift has taken place in the Tunaverse. And indeed, one has. In Tuna Does Vegas, the oddly affecting oddballs and cranks in Texas' third-smallest town get out of it, something we haven't seen in any of the three previous Tuna comedies and something that seemed all but unimaginable before this. Those characters felt so much a part of their dusty little burg that they seemed bound to it, rooted to the spot. But the show's creators wanted to really shake things up with the fourth installment and had the inspiration to make the townsfolk of Tuna fish-out-of-water in Sin City.
Taking the characters out of town is actually quite a gamble for creators Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard. Without Tuna itself to play off of, the play risks losing the universal signifiers of small-town life that have helped make the series so popular for 26 years. That may be why Howard, Sears, and Williams wait until act two to move 10 characters across state lines. Before that, Tuna Does Vegas looks much like its predecessors, with Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis broadcasting everybody's bidness over the airwaves of station OKKK and the ever-vexed Bertha dealing with a stream of visitors and callers to her home. This time, much of the fuss has to do with Arles and Bertha's impending trip to Nevada to renew their wedding vows, which inspires a bushel of their neighbors to come along. Before Didi Snavely can say, "God ... damn!" Vera Carp and Pearl Burras are squeezed into adjoining seats on a flight out of Lubbock (in one of the show's tightest, rowdiest scenes).
When the curtain rises again, the Tuna crew is in Vegas, which you might imagine leading to a scorching roast of Sin City's current excesses, from theme-park hotels to showbiz spectacles. But these small-town rubes aren't the sort to be booked at the Bellagio or salivating over Cirque du Soleil, so for them, "doing" Vegas consists of playing the slots at the airport and haunting the just-as-luxurious-as-it-sounds Hula Châteaux Resort lobby and parking lot. Actually, the scenes in Vegas are as domestic and self-contained as any in Tuna, most of them focused on these Texans' response to their new surroundings: frustrated Arles and Bertha just wanting to head home, pet protector Petey Fisk liberating an abused peacock, parsimonious Pearl hitting the jackpot and – surprise! – loosening up a little, rigor-mortis-stiff arms dealer Didi Snavely relaxing and – bigger surprise! – breaking into song.
This Tuna can be a bit of a tease, like the burlesque dancer who promises to take it all off but reveals less than you expect. Some of the characters' story arcs seem headed toward payoffs that don't come. Tuna Little Theatre's theatrically challenged director Joe Bob Lipsey is hired to mount a Vegas revue (with Tastee Kreme waitresses Inita Goodwin and Helen Bedd as showgirls!), and the setup is just too tantalizing for us not to expect that we'll see the onstage train wreck (or see someone seeing it, with an expression of horror that describes everything we aren't shown). But the play never follows through on it. Likewise, exposing rich bitch Vera Carp as a compulsive gambler suggests we might see her lose it all – cash and composure – in the casino, but Vera's last scene never takes us that far. Well, that's the lesson of Vegas, eh? You win some; you lose some.
But unlike most folks who visit Vegas, we come home bigger winners than losers. Any new chance to see Williams and Sears embody these characters is an occasion for which we're unquestionably the richer, and they deliver several memorable set-pieces with both the old crew and some new characters (most notably turban-topped showbiz diva Anna Conda, played by Williams with a hint of Carol Channing's voice and all the done-it-all hauteur of Eartha Kitt and Norma Desmond). And when the two stars show up as dueling Elvises (in spectacular jumpsuits by costumer Linda Fisher), it's jackpot time. We even get to glimpse Bertha in that bathing suit. Which is to say, when this show pays out, it makes leaving Tuna a gamble worth taking.