I wasn’t sure what to expect from a recent first-time trip to Branson, Mo. I heard that Branson could be like stepping into the past, with an ultra-patriotic, mom-and-apple pie vibe. But I also heard it was a bit like Vegas, with dozens of showrooms hosting flashy, colorful performances.
It turns out both things are true, but Branson is more than the sum of its parts. A four-day visit had me hankering for a longer stay, as this is a destination with something for everyone: live theater, amusement rides, good dining, plenty of shopping and beautiful scenery, courtesy of the nearby Ozarks. But what really set Branson apart for me was the scope of its entertainment scene –– the city has nearly 50 showrooms clustered along its “Strip” –– and the reasonable prices: Most evening performances cost less than $35.
During my short visit, I tried to sample a range of Branson acts. I started with dinner and a performance on the Showboat Branson Belle, an 1880s-style paddle-wheel boat that offers a two-hour cruise on Table Rock Lake. The fast-paced variety show featured host/comedian/magician Christopher James, singer Cassandre Faimon-Haygood (who married into one of Branson’s well-known performing families), a four-man dance/clogging troupe called Rhythm and a terrific male vocal group, the ShowMen.
Wanting to make the most of my time, I checked out a second show that same night –– the acclaimed sibling act, The Haygoods. These seven brothers and one sister are tremendously talented musicians, singers and dancers. Between the humor, high-energy choreography and their musical talent, I quickly understood why this family act has been a Branson favorite for more than a decade. The night we caught their show, fiddler/singer Kayliann Lowe was filling in for the Haygood sister; she did such a fantastic job I’m not sure many people in the audience even realized she was an understudy.
While many of the theaters and performances feature elaborate stage sets and special effects, a more intimate show at the Little Opry Theatre at the Branson IMAX absolutely charmed me. Originally produced by Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Company, Smoke on the Mountain is a two-act musical comedy set in 1938 in North Carolina. It follows the fictitious Sanders Family Singers as they perform at a Baptist church’s Saturday Night Gospel Sing. The show expertly mixes comedic moments with more than 30 old-time gospel tunes, sung by a very talented –– and very funny –– cast.
I also enjoyed Branson’s popular tribute show, Patsy Cline Remembered, starring C.J. Newsom as the legendary country vocalist. Note: This is not a play about Cline’s life, rather a straight-out musical tribute featuring a capable, respectful singer with a strong backing band, cleverly called The Re-Cliners.
My only critique of Branson is not having enough time to see more of its stage talent. Next time, I’ll stay longer.