Boston Review: Cowgirl Up!

"Johnny Guitar: The Musical"

Book by Nicholas van Hoogstraten
Music by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins
Lyrics by Joel Higgins
Director, Paul Daigneault
Music Director/Conductor, Jose Delgado
Set Design, Caleb Wertenbaker
Lighting Design, James Milkey
Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley
Choreography, David Connolly
Featured Cast:
Margaret Ann Brady, Christopher Chew, Christopher Cook, Luke Hawkins, Drew Poling, John Porcaro, Timothy J. Smith, Kathy St. George, and J. T. Turner
Performances: Now through December 18
Box Office: 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com

Forget the McCarthy era politics that were supposedly condemned in the 1954 Nicholas Ray western, "Johnny Guitar," which this same titled musical brazenly skewers. Forget subtle sub-text, poignant acting, or important social messages. "Johnny Guitar: The Musical," presented by the SpeakEasy Stage in Boston, is manic, mindless melodrama - and lots of rootin' tootin' fun to boot.

Picture a tumbling tumbleweed being dragged across stage by a very visible wire. Imagine an enormous '50s neon guitar suspended from a backdrop every time the title character's name is mentioned. Hear Mexican-style chords strummed vigorously - and often - whenever a menacing turn of events is foreshadowed. This is your basic old-fashioned Western, cult classic style. If you don't like "camping" on the prairie, "Johnny Guitar: The Musical" is not for you.

Collaborators Hoogstraten, Silvestri and Higgins take an already highly stylized cowgirl flick that starred Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as pistol packin' powerhouses and exaggerate its cliches to farcical proportions. The women are the warring dynamos here who threaten the town and each other while their laconic and love struck men folk wear the aprons and do the cooking. A male quartet that could easily be the strange offspring of The Sons of the Pioneers and The Four Freshmen quickly becomes a trio when one member accidentally shoots himself. In addition, the latent homosexuality that is only hinted at in the movie is manifested in lustful looks and blatant dialogue that are peppered throughout the musical.


In the SpeakEasy production, local favorite Kathy St. George plays Crawford's feisty saloon owner and heroine Vienna, and Margaret Ann Brady is her nemesis, McCambridge's bitter, sexually frustrated cattle baroness Emma Small. These pint-sized firebrands posture, scowl, throw furniture and chew the scenery. They kick, spank and bite each other in a riotously choreographed catfight. They also eat all their male co-stars for lunch.

Of course, this is how it should be, given the source material. Retired gunslinger Johnny (Guitar) Logan has rendered himself impotent by trading his six-shooter for a six stringer. The Dancin' Kid, Vienna's on-again off-again love interest and the object of Emma's crazed affection, is a bumbling boy toy who is hunted by one woman and saved by the other. As these serenading saddle tramps, Christopher Chew (Johnny) and Timothy J. Smith (Kid) are likeably vapid. But their seats in this production are in the back of the buckboard. St. George and Brady are at the reins and riding shotgun.

The score for "Johnny Guitar: The Musical" is a light-hearted mix of '50s rock 'n' roll, boy group doo wop, cowboy country and Southwestern ballad. Songs are performed with a melodramatic exuberance that would make Joan Crawford impersonators proud.

"Johnny Guitar: The Musical" may not be the great American treatise against political witch hunting that its predecessor was. But it is a rollicking spoof of the cult phenomenon that "Johnny Guitar: The Movie" has become. So strap on your equalizers and return to old West - the one where men were men, and so were the women.

 

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From This Author Jan Nargi

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