Houston native kicks up his heels in ‘Urban Cowboy: The Musical’
by Donalevan Maines
New York City is minus one nearly-nekkid dancer this summer. Houston’s John Berno is home for Urban Cowboy: The Musical on the stage where he grew up performing at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park.
The past three summers, Berno says, he’s stripped for Broadway Bares, the burlesque show featuring the hottest male and female dancers on the Great White Way. The annual event has raised gazillions of dollars for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
“It’s the highlight of my year,” says Berno, who graduated in 2001 from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Montrose.
“I came out when I was 16, my junior year at PVA,” he says. “I remember I woke up one day and said, ‘This is it.’ I called all my best friends and told them, ‘I’m gay.’
“My mother cried and I cried. She asked, ‘Do I still get to have grandchildren?’” He laughs. “I said, ‘Of course! I want to have lots of kids!”
Theatre Under the Stars’ production of Urban Cowboy: The Musical, which runs July 14–19, reunites Berno with his mentor, Paula Hammons Sloan, who ran The Texas Tap Ensemble in Garden Oaks for eons. “Now, she’s queen of the tours,” says Berno, explaining that Sloan has become the go-to gal for directing and/or choreographing national tours of Broadway shows.
When OutSmart spoke with Berno early last month, he’d signed on to perform in the show’s ensemble, but he didn’t know exactly which characters he’s playing. “I’ll do anything for Paula Sloan,” he says. “It doesn’t matter.”
Chances are he’ll be doing some clogging, as in the picnic scene in TUTS’ 110 in the Shade from several years back. In that show, Sloan’s handsome dancers stomped their boots in a cowboy form of tap-dancing. But Urban Cowboy: The Musical also calls for line dancing, romancing, fist-fighting, country crooning, and—of course—bull-riding, on a mechanical bull.
Urban Cowboy, the 1980 movie on which the musical is based—and especially its star, John Travolta—made mechanical bulls de rigueur at mammoth honkytonks like the story’s central setting, Gilley’s nightclub in Pasadena. Travolta in Western shirt, Wranglers, cowboy boots, and a Stetson also ensured that the national spotlight had Houston oilfield roughnecks in its glare.
“That [time] was pretty rough,” says Berno. He wasn’t even born until 1983, but he’s heard stories. “I kind of think of my mom’s brothers, if they had been super-kickerish.”
Berno isn’t shy, either, about jumping into the show’s bar brawl. “I live in New York City. I’m ready. Bring it,” he says.
Berno also looks forward to backing up star Austin Miller. “We worked together in Japan,” he explains. “Austin was the lead in the show that was supposed to come to Broadway. It was called Trip of Love, as in acid trip of love, set to music of the ’60s.”
The songs in Urban Cowboy: The Musical include hits that have been humming for decades from pickup-truck radios. Popping up throughout the show are iconic country songs by Clint Black, Garth Brooks, Lee Ann Womack, the Charlie Daniels Band, Willie Nelson, Sara Evans, and the Dixie Chicks.
Miller, who hails from Alvin, plays Bud, the John Travolta role. In 2007, he was “Hot Danny” on the NBC-TV reality show Grease: You’re the One that I Want!, placing second in the competition to pick the lead for the next revival of Grease on Broadway. He also set hearts aflutter as Hawk on Days of Our Lives, and played Link in Hairspray in Las Vegas and on national tours.
Sissy, which was Debra Winger’s breakout role, is played by Friendswood’s Brooke Wilson.
When the musical premiered on Broadway in 2003, it was nominated for Tony awards for best choreography and best original score.
What: Urban Cowboy: The Musical
When: July 14–19
Where: Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Hermann Park Drive
Tickets: Free tickets (limited to four per person) for covered seats are available on the day of performance between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the Miller Theatre box office. Any tickets remaining are given out one hour before curtain. Don’t want to wait in line? For each $50 tax-deductable donation to TUTS, the organization sets aside two reserved tickets under the covered pavilion. Contact Seth Malin at 713/558-2656 or [email protected] to take advantage of this deal. No tickets? Bring a cozy blanket or lawn chair and enjoy the show from the Miller Theatre lawn.
Info: tuts.com, milleroutdoortheatre.com, 713/558-TUTS (8887).
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.