Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2007
The wild, wild west - where men are men and women are men and outlaws dance (badly). Where the Town Tramp wears white while the “good girl” wears black (well, okay, her brother was just killed. Them’s just widder’s weeds.) Where plaintive guitar riffs are heard whenever our hero’s name in mentioned. Well, his name is Guitar, Johnny Guitar (okay, not really. He’s really Johnny Logan, the famous sharp-shooter...shhhh!)
Welcome to the wacky world of Johnny Guitar, a musical being given an hilarious regional premiere at the Theater Barn under the seriously warped (in a good way) direction of Bert Bernardi. Bernardi, who served as the Theater Barn’s Artistic Director for many years, has a knack for the peculiar. He directed last season's smash-hit Urinetown, another bizarre but irresistible show not for the faint of heart (or weak of bladder).
Here Artistic Director Michael Marotta warns in his curtain speech that there are gun shots in Johnny Guitar and if that bothers you to “get the hell outta here,” and he’s not kidding. There are gun shots aplenty (some louder and more startling than others) and if that upsets you this is not the show for you. Otherwise, I can’t think of anyone with a decent sense of humor and an eye for an attractive woman (or man) who won’t get a kick out of this show.
Johnny Guitar is based on the 1954 film of the same name directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, and Scott Brady, with Sterling Hayden in the title role. I haven’t seen this cult classic (sadly it is only available second-hand on VHS) but it is clear that librettist Nicholas van Hoogstraten and lyricist by Joel Higgins have lifted large chunks of its dialogue and situations verbatim to the stage. In other words this is not a burlesque of a serious western, this is a serious musical version of a western that just happens to be so overly dramatic and operatic that its funny.
This musical stage version, (Victor Young composed the soundtrack for the film and Peggy Lee belted out the title song) with a score by Higgins and Martin Sylvestri, made its debut off-Broadway in 2004 where it won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and was nominated for Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, and Drama League awards in several categories. With a small cast, simple set and tuneful score I would expect this show to become a regional and community theatre staple in short-order. Leave it to the always-adventurous Theater Barn to bring it here first.
The plot is bizarrely simple. Vienna (Jerielle Morwitz) is a Woman with a Past who runs a saloon and gambling joint just outside of town, near where the railroad depot will soon be built. Among many other men, she has a relationship with The Dancin’ Kid (Matthew Daly), after whom the town matriarch Emma (Megan Rozak) also lusts. When the stage is held up and Emma’s brother is killed she, the town sheriff McIvers (Michael F. Hayes), and their posse (Joseph Breen, Jim Nassef, and James Stover, who play everyone’s posse and provide back-up vocals on several numbers) blame Vienna and the Kid. Emma gives Vienna twenty-four hours to close down her establishment, or else...
Vienna has brought a stranger to town who calls himself Johnny Guitar (Scott Moreau). He carries only a guitar, no gun, and although Vienna claims she has just hired him to entertain at her saloon, everybody hates him from the start. Soon Vienna and Johnny are in a hot embrace, and the next day she goes to the bank to close out her business account, when who should show up to rob the joint but The Dancin’ Kid. He takes everybody’s money except Vienna’s, and the next thing you know Emma and McIvers have a noose around Vienna’s neck. Johnny rescues her, but Emma’s not defeated so easily. She and her posse track Vienna and Johnny down at The Dancin’ Kid’s hideout and a shoot-out ensues – between the women.
In Morwitz, Rozak, and Daly, Bernardi has three Theater Barn veterans who have proven their expertise with this kind of silly stuff. Morwitz plays Crawford’s Vienna with style and smoldering sexuality. She looks just great in those tight jeans and cowboy boots with the guns slung low upon her hips, and she belts out her numbers in a strong and lusty voice.
In contrast the petite and very young Rozak is made here to look more like the Bride of Frankenstein, complete with a swoop of gray across the front of her severely coiffed black hair, than Mercedes McCambridge. Rozak is a little ball of fire who brings great energy to the evil Emma. Her funniest bits are when she allows Emma’s not-so-latent lust for Vienna to surface, notably in the final denouement. As Vienna tells Emma “I’m the woman you hate to love.”
Daly, who is an expert at maniacal glee (Oooo, dare I hope that he’s sticking around to play Orin Scrivello, DDS, in “Little Shop”??), dances dreadfully and snarls wonderfully as the Dancin’ Kid. The scene in which he takes out his jealousy of Johnny by bossing him around in the kitchen is very, very funny.
Moreau’s Johnny is a monument to the strong and silent type, except when he sings, which he does very well. Otherwise he just looks great (again, excellent form in tight jeans, this show has eye-candy for everybody) and emotes very little, as behooves a Real Man.
Breen, Nassef and Stover, along with Trey Compton who plays the role of Turkey as well as lending a hand in the chorus, are all handsome young men with strong voices and a knack for comedy. Compton gets some wonderful solo moments to show off his array of ridiculous and rubbery facial expressions, and he is priceless in the innuendo-laden scene in which Vienna shows Turkey how to use his rifle. Compton also gets credit as the Fight Choreographer, so we have him to thank for Vienna and Emma’s hilarious show-down.
Abe Phelps has provided the simplest of sets, as barren and empty as the desert itself, and just as teeming with hidden life. Robert Eberle gets to go hog-wild with the lighting in a couple of numbers, notable Johnny’s second act solo Tell Me a Lie where all pretense that we are anywhere but in the theatre watching a musical goes flying out the window.
Micharl McAssey and his small ensemble provide excellent musical support from off-stage left. Jonathan Knipscher has played it straight with the costumes, sticking closely to the look of the film. The red wig John Heinis has provided for Morwitz is a stunner.
Yeah, there’s some kinky weird stuff in this show, but frankly young children aren’t going to pick up on it. They are going to see it as sort-of a live-action Yosemite Sam cartoon with music, and at under two hours with an intermission for a bathroom break and a snack, (not to mention the Barn’s low ticket prices,) this is a great show for the whole family.
Johnny Guitar runs through August 5 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes with one intermission and, gunshots aside, is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007