Country music has spawned its fair share of execrable album titles. For every Coal Miner’s Daughter, there’s The Woman in Me; for every Wildwood Flower, a Bean Blossom. But Clea Merle Johnson balks when her friend Floyd Duffner announces he’s naming his record The Last Bloom in the Garden. “Floyd,” she tells him, “that’s a terrible title.” Instead she suggests Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky, which doubles as the name of David Cale’s new two-character musical.
Clea (Mary Faber) and Floyd (Cale) meet when Floyd’s alcoholism has floated him away from the music scene and into a rusted-out Studebaker in Great Falls, Montana. Clea, who isn’t even old enough to drink, takes an interest when she hears him singing by the side of the road. Clea, it seems, is a songwriter too. She pesters him for cassette tapes and advice. She even lets him share one of her gigsï¿½at the local high school.
As Cale has no discernible fear of clichï¿½, Clea’s friendship leads Floyd to put down the bottle and pick up his guitar. The plot couldn’t be more predictable, but neither could its execution be more tender or sincere. Cale, as a writer and performer, and Faber too, both carry a tremendous innocence about them. That innocence somehow transforms the formulaic: The events onstage seem so sweetly surprising to Floyd and Clea that they surprise the audience as well.
It must have taken Cale tremendous innocence, or perhaps daring, to cast himself as Floyd. A slender, balding, delicate Englishman, he has little of the sharpness or swagger that the role of a prickly Texan singer would seem to require. His accent may waver, particularly in more heated moments, but Cale lends great poignancy to the role and looks much better in a cowboy hat than anyone could reasonably expect. Faber also gives a lovely performance, though she’s a natural choice for Clea with her girlish looks and grade A maple syrup voice.
Jonathan Kreisberg’s music gives Faber plenty of opportunities to show off that voice. Many of Cale’s lyrics tend toward the childlike and the impish. A sample quatrain: “You send me Belgian chocolates/ And you send me shirts to wear/You once sent me a Chia pet/ Made out of pubic hair.” The jokey songs are sufficient fun, but the mournful ballads “White Cowboy Hat” and “I’ll Be Your Secret” are the show’s winners. Clea ends that latter song repeating, “Come to me/Come to me/Come to me.” Audiences should listen closely.