A Review

Musical Angst On The Range

By R. J. Donovan

With tongue securely planted in cheek, SpeakEasy Stage is presenting the New England premiere of “Johnny Guitar: The Musical” -- book by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, music and lyrics by Joel Higgins and music by Martin Silvestri. Based on the 50’s film western of the same name (minus “The Musical” of course), the stage production is pure camp.

The original film, now a cult classic, was unusual for its time. In a case of role reversal, the tough-talkin,’ gun-totin’ women (Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge) played the traditional male roles.

In "Johnny Guitar," our setting is the New Mexico desert in the late 1800’s. As the lights come up, a tumbleweed rolls lazily across an empty stage. Vienna (Kathy St. George, left, in the Crawford role) is the local saloon keeper who’s worked her way from tramp to businesswoman. Now the raven-haired beauty is just a’waiting for the railroad to come through town, bringing fortune to her front door.

Meanwhile, Vienna's arch nemesis is Emma (Margaret Ann Brady in the McCambridge role at left with St. George), a sexually frustrated (and perhaps confused) cattle tycoon who owns the local bank in addition to most everything and everyone in town. Now she’s got her eye on The Dancin’ Kid (Timothy J. Smith), the leader of the local gang of no-goods. But The Kid is only interested in Vienna. Which riles the jealous Emma no end.

To protect her interests, Vienna has sent for Johnny Guitar (Christopher Chew), a dashing but mysterious stranger who packs a guitar vs. a pistol. There’s more to his story than he lets on. And his arrival through the saloons swinging doors prompts one of the other male characters to comment, "that's a lot of man you're carrying in those boots."

Over the course of the evening, the bank is robbed, Vienna winds up with a noose around her neck, everyone hides out in a mountain retreat, and the traditional all-male shoot-out is executed by the ladies.

The tone is set right at the top of the evening with the introduction of a title song, meant to be sung, 50’s style, over opening credits. Adding to the absurdity, one of the back-up singing cowboys is accidentally shot during the number, but the show goes on while he lies there dead. (St. George does double duty here, dolled up as a sultry lounge singer before disappearing to morph into the boot-wearing, hip-swinging, Vienna.)

As far as the country-western flavored musical numbers go, Chew scores with “Tell Me A Lie,” St. George has a sweet moment with the quiet ballad “Welcome Home,” Brady chews things up in “Who Do They Think They Are?” and Smith does a nice job with both “What’s In It For Me” and “The Gunfighter.”

Bending the gender even further, Chew and St. George share a domestic scene in “We’ve Had Our Moments.” Sitting at the kitchen table, Vienna lovingly burnishes the long barrel of her gun while Johnny scrambles eggs and fusses with the coffee.

The ensemble -- Christopher Cook, Luke Hawkins, Drew Poling and John Porcaro -- go through a laundry list of quick changes to play a multitude of tough guys and townspeople while J. T. Turner turns in another congenial performance as Mr. McIvers, the officious voice of the law.

Director Paul Daigneault has put together a crowd pleasing cast and even if the material’s level of offbeat lunacy is not always consistent, the show is still goofy enough to please most of the pard’ners and cowpokes in these here parts.

"Johnny Guitar " is at The Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston, through December 15. For information, call 617-933-8600.

Production Photos: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

-- OnStage Boston


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