By MAIA NOLAN
"The Ballad of Soapy Smith," which opened Friday at Cyrano's, is a big play — big story, big cast, big script (with two intermissions, it clocks in at just about three hours). The larger-than-life effect is suitable considering its subject matter: Smith, a Gold Rush hustler who took Skagway by storm, is one of the most infamous figures in Alaska's territorial history.
Michael Weller's script, which was commissioned to celebrate the opening of the new Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1983, unabashedly embraces all the archetypal Gold Rush characters. His Skagway is peopled by smooth-talking con artists, humorless lawmen, giggling dance hall girls, crusty prospectors and prim church folk. The large cast is peppered with names and faces you'll recognize from past performances at Cyrano's and around town, and the performances are uniformly strong.
The role of Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, the con man whose name is still associated with Alaska's Gold Rush days, is a perfect fit for Cyrano's regular Erick Hayden. Hayden captures a convincing P.T. Barnum vibe that draws in the audience as well as the residents of Weller's Skagway, and he shifts smoothly from mellow to menacing when Smith's darker side emerges.
Patrick Killoran is a likable narrator to whom Saturday night's audience responded warmly. His love interest is played by a well-cast Veronica Page. While the good-girl role (reminiscent of Marian the Librarian in "The Music Man") is not particularly interesting, Page carries it off nicely.
Producing artistic director Sandy Harper told Saturday night's audience that the cast is the largest ever assembled on Cyrano's stage. The result is an occasional feeling of chaos, although director Dick Reichman uses that to his advantage as he cultivates a sense of unrest in Smith's Skagway. At times, however, the noise gets to be a bit much, and dialogue can be hard to make out over the roar of the crowd.
Blocking doesn't always take into consideration those theatergoers seated in the side sections, so for the best view, arrive early to get seats in the middle.
There are some very nice creative and technical elements at work as well in "The Ballad of Soapy Smith." Sound and lighting are subtle and unobtrusive, and they only serve to enhance the performance. The simple stage design is a wise choice given the size of the cast; too much set, coupled with so many people, would be overwhelming in Cyrano's intimate space.
There's a lot to like about "The Ballad of Soapy Smith." Even at three hours long, it doesn't drag, mostly because there's just so much going on. A particularly nice bonus is the live music that accompanies many of the scene changes. Cheri Spink, formerly of the Barbwire Twisters, plays the actors in and out on her banjo, giving the show a little old-time musical flavor to complete the Gold Rush ambience.
"The Ballad of Soapy Smith" repeats Thurs.-Sat. at 7 p.m. and Sun. at 3 p.m. through March 1 at Cyrano's Off Center Playhouse, 413 D St. Tickets, $16, are available at www.centertix.net or 263-2787.