Cowboy Bob is a musical production based on the true story of a cross-dressing bank robber in Texas who successfully robbed four banks before being killed by police.

Cowboy Bob players, from left Annie Tippe, director and co-creator; and cast members Sophie Nassari Morvillo, Natalie Daninhirsch, Claire Guthrie and Wes D’Alelio with musical director Alex Thrailkill. Credit: Wendi Kromash

Friday night was the first of two public performances of the workshop at the Hal & Martha Hyer Wallis Theater on Northwestern’s campus and produced by American Music Theatre Project (AMTP). It was created by Molly Beach Murphy, Jeanna Phillips and Annie Tippe and directed by Tippe.

The workshop was a reading with dialogue and singing of songs, rather than a fully staged musical production.

There were no costumes except for a cowboy hat or two, no real props except for sunglasses or an unopened can of pop. The Northwestern actors, all students, read their dialogue from open scripts; one song was sung by the lyricist since it had been written earlier in the day. 

The trio (Murphy, Phillips and Tippe) have been workshopping this musical for the past six years, refining the plot, revising and rewriting the songs and the dialogue, and polishing the lyrics. It has been hard work for the women, mentally taxing, always dependent on their friendships and their contacts, always looking for grants to give them temporary sustenance and shelter until the rough idea finally becomes the musical idea they see in their hearts and minds.

A workshop is more challenging for an audience to absorb: one’s imagination must fill in the missing details that would ordinarily be supplied by a stage production. But watching a workshop is like watching a painter paint on a blank canvas or a sculptor unlock a figure trapped in marble. It permits the viewer to watch the creative process in real time, which can be messy, confusing and filled with questions.

The woman known as Cowboy Bob, Peggy Jo Tallas, was quoted to have said that her favorite movie was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. One is also reminded of Thelma and Louise and Peggy Lee’s 1969 torch song, Is That All There Is?

The talented cast of 10 actors and two musicians conveyed the scenes illustrated by the stage directions and notes read aloud to the audience.

Everyone on stage ably communicated the boredom and feeling of “deadendedness” that each character shares in some way, counterbalanced by the need to do something – anything – that matters. After Northwestern’s Saturday evening performance, the creators are traveling to Houston in preparation for the show’s world premiere in 2023 at the Alley Theatre.

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...