February 15, 2009

Anchorage Daily News review of Ballad of Soapy Smith...

Soapy meets Sophocles

Play reveals the famished soul in Alaska's most notorious con man
By Mike Dunham

Published: February 15th, 2009 12:02 AM
Last Modified: February 15th, 2009 01:25 AM

You think modern Alaska has a bumper crop of corrupt public figures?


None of our living crooks can touch the far-flung fame of Soapy Smith -- hustler, gangster, bamboozler without peer. By the time he got himself shot dead in Skagway, he'd left the Old West strewn with victims, easy marks, willing dupes, furious citizenry and frustrated lawmen. No history of the Gold Rush fails to discuss him at length.

Given the wide swath he cut in real life, it's surprising that he has such a slim profile in fiction. When he does appear, it's usually in a secondary role, part of the background. Or a caricature in a melodrama spoof one step removed from vaudeville. Or worse, a cookie-cutter Soapy-type role that doesn't even use his real name.

Col. Jefferson Randolph Smith would have hated it.

But he'd surely like "The Ballad of Soapy Smith," in which he is the central character, the star and bona-fide protagonist.

The play, which opened at Cyrano's on Friday, is a big cast, full-length drama with just a dash of the surreal mixed into a mostly valid account of the "simple facts of the case." It raises the credible possibility that somewhere deep in Soapy's rotten soul was a potentially decent mortal starving for a little genuine dignity -- just like the rest of us.


"Ballad" is no spoof. Author Michael Weller ranks among the most accomplished theatrical writers around. His output includes the widely esteemed "Moonchildren" and "Spoils of War." Last fall he had two plays running simultaneously in New York. He's now involved in writing two musicals, one of which, "Dr. Zhivago," is directed by Des McAnuff and set to open in London next Christmas.

Weller's film work, which includes "Hair" and "Ragtime," has been nominated for Academy Awards. He's a genuine player in a rarefied profession, about which he maintains clear-eyed perspective. "Most of the things I chose to work on are very marginal," he said. "Unless you have a powerful director who's very sexy at the moment, the odds are they won't come to pass."

Happily, "Ballad" did. In 1983, Weller was working with the Seattle Repertory Theatre when the company asked him for a new work to open its new playhouse.

"I'd spotted Soapy Smith's picture in a history of the Old West," Weller recalled. "It sounded like a really interesting story. Especially since Seattle was like the port of origin for people heading to Alaska and the Klondike."

The play opened in Seattle, featuring Kate Mulgrew (later to play Capt. Janeway in the "Star Trek: Voyager" television series) as the main female character in a man-heavy cast. It went on to the New York Shakespeare Festival. A Web site run by Smith's great-grandson, "Friends of Soapy Smith," is stingy in its praise for most theatrical depictions of Soapy but says this about "Ballad:" A wonderful play ... a rip-roaring play about megalomania and power, a Wild West show with something more on its mind than six-shooters and revenge."


The simple facts of the case are well known. Jeff Smith got his nickname by selling bars of soap to crowds in Denver. Some bars included money. Those always wound up in the hands of his henchmen, who put on such a display at their supposed random good luck that the rest of the soap -- none containing any cash -- quickly sold out at exorbitant prices.

Just as quickly, the crowd figured out the ruse. Soapy sprinted off to Colorado's wild mining camps, bringing his associates -- assorted card sharps, smooth talkers and knee-breaking goons. He alternated among scams, market-cornering, ruthless elimination of competition and outright hoodlumy, always managing to beat what passed for law enforcement to the next orchard of suckers ripe for plucking.

When the Klondike Gold Rush broke out, he established himself in Skagway. Using the veneer of a legitimate restaurateur, he slipped his minions into every racket available -- booze, gambling, girls -- while ingratiating himself into the boomtown's upper crust.

He roused up patriotic fervor at the start of the Spanish-American War and formed his own "militia," heavily staffed by his cronies, and added the spurious "Colonel" to his name. His civic standing rose so high that on the Fourth of July, 1898, he was elected grand marshal of the Independence Day Parade.

Four days later, he was shot to death in a gun battle.

He was just 37 years old. But his reputation had become immortal.


Weller takes the myth and tries to figure out what made Soapy tick. His Soapy is more than a flimflammer with mob muscle. He's educated, ambitious, talented, energetic -- and devoid of any sense of right and wrong, except insofar as a pretense of morality may advance his agenda.

The Soapy in this play is beginning to realize that he's not entirely comfortable with that ethical void. Sure, he's got where he is by foul means. But he's starting to imagine -- like many an Alaska newcomer then and now -- that maybe this is a place where he can remake his life.

It's a universal plot, Weller said. "A lot of American success stories started out as criminals." In the play, Soapy puts it this way: "Show me a good reputation and I'll show you the grandson of a horse thief."

The dramatic conflict lies within Soapy himself, who the playwright describes as "a con man no longer satisfied to just get what he needs but who wants a justifiable long-term existence."

The attempt to shift from opportunist to a pillar of society doesn't sit well with his associates. They've followed Soapy to Alaska presuming that Skagway is just another "hit-and-run operation ... end of next summer latest, then back to the world."

When the gang realizes that their leader is swallowing his own bunco, they turn against him, launching arsons and robberies unsanctioned by the boss. Soapy helplessly sees his old empire crumbling before he can finish building his new one. He can't control the situation, and he won't run away.


The antagonist in all this is the man who history celebrates as the good guy, Frank Reid, who is said to have gunned down Soapy and was killed himself in the duel.

Reid too is conflicted in Weller's version. He's a straight arrow with a shady past who admires order but chooses to live in a chaotic setting. He's opposed to the more extreme actions of the local vigilante committee but is ready to take the law into his own hands when pushed.

Soapy is fatally attracted to Reid's incorruptibility. He easily cows or seduces the townsfolk, clergy, territorial authorities and the slipperier businessmen. But what he craves is Reid's sincere respect and friendship.

His men are baffled. "Frank Reid will never be in our pocket," says one. "We've seen his kind before."

"No, never his exact kind," Soapy answers. "Can't be bought. Can't be scared. Can't be fooled. The man is goodness itself. I want him. I'll have him."

But that's impossible. "Reid found Smith amusing," Weller said, not threatening or respectable.

The clash of psychologies sets the scene for a tragedy worthy of Sophocles. But it takes place behind the mask of mirth associated with the Gay '90s and Gold Rush frivolity -- sourdoughs and outlaws, dust pokes and hootch, prostitutes and ragtime. (Weller, who studied composition and had his own jazz band for a while, wrote several period-style tunes that lace the script.)

On a more visceral, edge-of-the-seat level, "The Ballad of Soapy Smith" reads like a smooth-scripted action flick. In fact, Weller said, "There was interest in it, very briefly, for a movie. Elton John was involved, and Garth Brooks.

"It all got very interesting and exciting -- before it didn't."

From his rotting coffin under the sod and snow of Skagway, Soapy Smith might well agree.

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