Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Johnny Guitar"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Beverly Creasey

Giddy "Guitar"

Reviewed by Beverly Creasey

From the tumblin’ tumbleweed to the ferocious catfight, the SpeakEasy’s supple production of JOHNNY GUITAR is, well, might naughty fun. The campy musical (by Van Hoogstraten/ Silvestri and Higgins) is based on the kinky western directed by Nicholas Ray, starring real life rivals Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge. Now there’s two scary women fer ya. (McCambridge married Crawford’s ex, adding fuel to the fire.) The only things the musical doesn’t have are Bette Davis and Crawford’s signature shoulder pads.

Kathy St. George does her straight-shootin’ best to channel Crawford as the feisty saloon owner who can hold her own in a man’s world. Margaret Brady chews up the scenery in the formidable McCambride role. The songs, believe it or not, are quite winning, for a spoof. They’ll remind you of real folk songs or hokey ‘50s ballads like Jay and the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer {You’re My Kind of Man}.” It’s that very song (here called “Old Santa Fe”) which, sung absolutely straight, solidifies the hero’s noble character. Up until that number, Christopher Chew (as the handsome gunfighter Johnny Guitar) is given mighty silly stuff to do.

The same goes for his romantic rival, The Dancin’ Kid (Timothy J. Smith), who’s a bit of a fool until his gorgeous big number, “The Gunfighter.” You could lift these two songs right out of the musical and you’d think they were the genuine article. If only Chew’s “Tell Me a Lie” wasn’t played for laughs, director Paul Daigneault could have had it both ways: a spoof with a serious heart. As it is, poor Johnny gets undercut by the buffoonery…and a hat which distends his ears and makes him look like Slim Pickens instead of a Randolph Scott or a Joel McCrea.

Smith’s Dancin’ Kid reminded me of the Jason Robards character in Sergio Leone’s operatic “Once Upon A Time in the West”…and that ain’t hay, as the saying goes. Brady gets to rage like the bizarre love child of the Wicked Witch of the West and the Phantom of the Opera, setting up the big gunfight at the feminist corral.

Director Daigneault and music director Jose Delgado (who strums a fine guitar) get terrific performances from Luke Hawkins as the greenhorn railroaded into giving up St. George, from the talented quartet of Hawkins, Christopher Cook, Drew Poling and John Porcaro playing everyone else, and from J.T. Turner as the corrupt town tycoon.

Caleb Wertenbaker’s big sky set and moveable canyons glow with crimson passion in James Milkey’s fiery sunsets. Gail Astrid Buckley’s period dusters and black “bad guy” garb add to the operatic effect (except for that silly hat for Mr. Guitar). Guitar should be the handsome “man with no name” (a la Clint Eastwood in Leone’s spaghetti westerns), not the bozo with the “musical” name. Sorry. Sorry. Forget I said that. I had a ripsnortin’ good time with the SpeakEasy cowboys.

"Johnny Guitar: The Musical" (19 November - 18 December)
Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts
527 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 933-8600

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