Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Johnny Guitar: The Musical"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


"JOHNNY GUITAR: THE MUSICAL"

book by Nichoals van Hoogstraten
music by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins
lyrics by Joel Higgens

directed by Paul Daigneault
music direction by José Delgado
choreography by David Connolly

Quartet … Christopher Cook; Luke Hawkins; Drew Poling; John Porcaro
The Title Singer … Kathy St. George Johnny Guitar … Christopher Chew
Sam … John Porcaro
Tom … Drew Poling
Eddie … Christopher Cook
Vienna … Kathy St. George
Emma Small … Margaret Ann Brady
Mr. McIvers … J. T. Turner
Jenks … Christopher Cook
The Dancin’ Kid … Timothy J. Smith
Bart Lonnegan … Drew Poling
Turkey … Luke Hawkins
Trio … Christopher Cook; Luke Hawkins; Drew Poling
Ned … John Porcaro
Bill … Christopher Cook
Hank … Christopher Cook
Carl … Drew Poling
The Western Singer … Luke Hawkins

Orchestra:

Piano; Guitar; Conductor … José Delgado
Guitar 1 … Kevin Grodecki
Bass … Ippei Ichimaru
Drums … Gil Graham

The award-winning JOHNNY GUITAR: THE MUSICAL, based on the 1954 Nicholas Ray film is cute, campy fun for the masses (that is, it’s safe for adults as well as children); the film has achieved cult status due to Joan Crawford’s Vienna squaring off with Mercedes McCambridge’s Emma --- two butch women staring each other down --- so it was inevitable that this Freudian western would eventually resurface in musical form. Two characters that die in the film are spared, onstage; otherwise, librettist Nicholas van Hoogstraten is faithful down to the last squaring of the shoulders: Vienna, a former saloon girl, now runs a saloon-casino of her own on the outskirts of an Old West town while waiting for the railroad to be built in her direction. She sends for an old flame, a guitar-playing gunfighter nicknamed Johnny Guitar, for protection against the townspeople, led by the malevolent Emma Small; as Vienna and Johnny rekindle banked fires, the Dancing Kid (Vienna’s current lover) and Emma (in love/hate with the Kid) fuel the growing tension which culminates in the famous shoot-out between the two women. The Nicholas Ray film in its day was viewed as an attack on McCarthyism and it gave Ms. Crawford one of her best-remembered roles. Like THE BAD SEED, JOHNNY GUITAR has its own built-in humor (it’s an inversion of the Western genre with the women as the strong characters while the men, more or less, are onlookers) and Time has made its dated dialogue all the more cartoon-like; there is little here to deliberately parody. Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins have written a catchy pop-country score that could allow JOHNNY GUITAR: THE MUSICAL to be staged as a regular horse-opera with passion and guts rather than with tongue in cheek (if so, the film’s darkness would need to be emphasized and the Vienna-Emma showdown reworked as it is now written and played for easy laughs).

SpeakEasy Stage, giving JOHNNY GUITAR: THE MUSICAL its New England premiere is faithful enough to the staging of the original off-Broadway production and there’s a nice, homegrown feel to the evening. Director Paul Daigneault and choreographer David Connolly never allow things to sink into the florid or garish, keeping things light and dry, and they reap affectionate laughter for their pains. (The New York production had its orchestra onstage, making it part revue, part concert; the Messrs. Daigneault and Connolly hide their musicians and stage the evening as a conventional musical.) The leads are at sixes and sevens, stylistically, with Vienna and Emma running parallel to their film counterparts while Christopher Chew’s Johnny is a vulnerable, tearful fellow instead of the laconic loner (Mr. Chew adds his own 50s nostalgia: when he grins, in his buckskins, he becomes Buffalo Bob). Timothy J. Smith, new to me, turns a limited singing range to his advantage: his yelping approach with a ringing top bring the Kid to life in a way that a trained singer couldn’t (as in New York, his character’s legendary dancing is spoofed). Margaret Ann Brady, a knockout in the SpeakEasy’s production of RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL, amusingly implodes as Emma --- the more she holds back, the nuttier she becomes.

Kathy St. George passes the acid test as Vienna: she made me forget I was watching the pixie charmer in the trio of Boston’s musical leading ladies. Currently on leave from the cast of MENOPAUSE: THE MUSICAL, Ms. St. George does not do a Crawford impersonation but, rather, adopts the tough stance of a ladylike broad and pushes the envelope ever so gently (e.g. when her Vienna emerges victorious from the showdown, she stops for a moment to pat her hair into place). Having seen Ms. St. George in DAS BARBECÜ, several years ago, I knew she would be at home with the TexMex-flavored score but the overly-loud, unseen orchestra drowns her out, forcing her to belt and leaving her still belting in her dialogue. Should Ms. St. George manage to attain an aural balance, her Vienna will a feather in her Peter Pan cap; though Vienna is paper-thin, Ms. St. George demonstrates a rock-solid depth that I’ve not seen in her before --- it’s time for her to take a crack at dramatic fare and, equally important, for her to be allowed to do so. If she must continue on with musicals, there’s always Edith Piaf….

HELP SAVE BOSTON’S HISTORIC GAIETY THEATRE!

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

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