Book by Nicholas van Hoogstraten
Lyrics by Joel Higgins
Music by Martin Silvestri & Joel Higgins
Directed by Paul Daigneault
Speakeasy Stage Co. in Roberts Studio
Calderwood Pavilion, BCA, 527 Tremont, Boston / (617) 933 - 8600
Through Dec. 18

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Speakeasy Stage Co., when not producing serious music theatre, such as their season opener "Company", has also demonstrated the facility to tackle the more playful side of the form, as in their smash success with "BatBoy" or a miniature such as "Ruthless." For "Johnny Guitar" they've recruited Kathy St. George, who channeled Liza and her mother for the latter show, and partnered her with Christopher Chew, who played Fredrick in Lyric Stage Co.'s season opener, "A Little Night Music." Chew and St. George moreover were the dueling duo in "Pete n' Keeley" at Stoneham last season. They're once again a comic delight as the title character and, Vienna, the pistol-packing saloon owner who loves him. The book by Nicholas van Hoogstraten is based--with a few liberties--on Nicholas Ray's arch western starring Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden. Diminutive St. George has Crawford's entrances and eyebrows down pat, with a touch of Rita Hayworth in the opening number, while Chew's Johnny is an amalgam of long tall heroes with mysterious pasts. They both handle Yourdan's Freudian dialogue from the original with aplomb.�

Their rivals, in a plot with various undertones not usually found in Westerns, are Margaret Ann Brady as Emma Small, the local tycoon, Vienna's rival for The Dancin' Kid, played by Timothy J. Smith. Back in Massachusetts after a sojourn in Chicago. Smith's the leader of a wild bunch who hang out at Vienna's roadhouse. Brady, who was also in "Ruthless --as Lita Encore, the critic who hates musicals--is part of the sketch duo The Mrs. Potatohead Show. Her henchman--and the shows' fight director and armorer--is J.T.Turner SAFD as Sheriff McIvers. There are a lot of guns in this cowboy show as well as guitars. The strong ensemble, who sing backup on various numbers as well as taking turns being, citizens, outlaws or the posse, include Rough & Tumble regular Christopher Robin Cook and BosCon BFA candidate Luke Hawkins, who is mostly Turkey, the real kid in the Kid's gang. Drew Poling, who was Carl Magnus in Lyric's "A Little Night Music" adds a strong baritone as various big guys, while John Porcaro, last seen for Speakeasy in "The Wild Party" is Vienna's bartender, the bank teller, and other background characters. This strong and versatile cast gallops away with the overheated spirit of this horse opera.

The music and lyrics by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins evoke commercial country fare from the '50s with a touch of parody, but a real feeling for the era. There's just the slightest hint of rockabilly behind the pop facade plus doo-woop choruses. The title song, sung by St. George in her signature red sequins, has lyrics like "She'd long ago learned, That you don't give an inch to, Or trust anyone, More dangerous when, He's wearing a grin than a gun...Like Johnny Guitar" Just before its climax, one member of the backup quartet, who've been brandishing pistols for emphasis, shots the guy on the end--and the number goes on. From then on, all the backups are trios. The hero's first number is in praise of a good cup of coffee and a smoke after which Vienna gets down about being "Branded a Tramp", for being a tramp. And so it goes. This seasoned crew sells Higgin's clever lyrics with gusto, though the only memorable song may be Vienna's gentle ballad "Welcome Home" the last tune in the first act. Music director Jose Delgado doubling on piano and guitar as part of a quartet captures the tone of Silvestri's intentionally slick Tin Pan Alley western music. The show did win the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical 2004.

There's a broad sense of humor behind Paul Daigneault's direction of this farrago, aided by Caleb Wertenbaker's ingenious minimal set with multiuse pieces, including a staircase which lets St. George loom over the first act. The color palette evokes the cheap Truecolor process of the original film. Gail Astrid Buckley's costumes evoke the Hollywood Western, particularly those for Vienna, though Emma's funeral culottes are a nice touch. St. George is fetching in both her floozy outfit, still wearing her cowboy boots of course, and her very Crawford white belle outfit, but she looks best in tailored jeans. Lighting designer James Milkey, whose last Speakeasy show was "The Wild Party" in the BCA Plaza basement theater, gets a range of interior and exterior effects out of the much better facilities in new Roberts Studio. A followspot would be a nice touch however. He has the advantage of having worked on the original New York production. Sound design and amplification are also a step up. Speakeasy has wisely left the Roberts in the same proscenium configuration used for "Company". Future shows may choose to use the 3/4 arrangement of their former home, the BCA Plaza; time will tell. Their remaining shows this season are premieres of straight plays, including the Pulitizer-Prize winning "Anna in the Tropics", which will star Melinda Lopez, whose well-received play "Sonia Flew" runs through the end of the month in the larger Wimberley Theatre next door under the same roof. And "Johnny Guitar" will keep drifting into town for years to come.

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