Sunday, February 01, 2009
opening-weekend review of *Cowgirls*
at Interplayers through Feb. 14
Pickers vs. Slickers
In Betsy Howie and Mary Murfitt’s *Cowgirls* (at Interplayers through Valentine’s Day), a misunderstanding leads to a classical trio getting booked to play at a honky-tonk. Clashes of culture (highbrow classical vs. lowbrow country) ensue.
The music’s better than the acting or the plot — but boy, does the music make up for the deficiencies.
The fish-out-of-water “Coghill Trio” (Allison Morgan, violin; Janet Robel, piano; and Jennifer Jacobs, cello) play some Beethoven and sing some Gilbert and Sullivan for openers, and the effect is electric: These women are going to be our orchestra all night, and — reassuringly — they can really perform.
A whole series of musical highlights follows. First, a lullaby hints at how the trio can start their transition from Brahms to the blues. Then, a cappella, they sing a kind of sorority song of sisterly solidarity (“We’re bound by gender / Music is our defender”) that even manages to throw in a reference to “the muse Euterpe.” Next, “From Chopin to Country” refashions a nocturne into a country twang by contrasting “Brandenburg” to “brandin’ cows.”
By this point, it’s clear that Murfitt’s lyrics to her own songs are going to create a lot of fun along that lonesome highway from Haydn to Hank Williams. There’ll be “no whinin’ in the Kingdom of Country,” we’re informed, even though at one point, Jacobs comes out in a piled-high country-girl wig to announce that she’s so into country now, “I can feel my truck crashin’ and my dog dyin’.” A country romance is just “a gamble of love,” we’re told, just “a flip of the coin, a twitch in the groin.” In another sequence, a kind of musical showdown has the local honky-tonk girls firing off Patsy Cline hits only to learn that Beethoven and Bizet aren’t so far removed from popular music.
Morgan plays the haughty one in the trio, her nose held high in disappointment that they’re playing in Kansas and not Carnegie Hall. When the hometown women (Janean Jorgensen as the club owner, Micah Hanson as a ditz in pigtails, and Liberty Rose as an aspiring banjo plucker) try to demonstrate country’s appeal, she resists most. Morgan spends too much of the first act overacting, contributing shrieking high notes and piercing sound effects for laughs and getting all big-eyed when the yokels start talking classical down. Predictably, Morgan’s character is the one that needs converting to the ways of just-folks, and predictably, that conversion arrives when she and Jorgensen reminisce about “Songs My Mama Sang.”
But then something amazing happens. The “Mama” duet turns out to be tender and beautiful. And Act One’s closing number, a medley of “Love’s Sorrow” and “Looking for a Miracle,” features Morgan crooning about hope and reeling off a classical-violin cadenza that demonstrates both that she possesses considerable musical talent and that together, country and classical can pack an emotional wallop. With the honky-tonk in financial peril and nobody really convinced that three classical musicians can convert to country ways in time to achieve needed ticket sales, that act-closing number develops in unexpected ways, with singers and instrumentalists on both sides of the country/classical musical divide “looking for a miracle.”
The down-home country feel of *Cowgirls* is attributable to musical director Pamela Brownlee, who runs her own cowboy supper club out near the state line and knows how to vary the boot-stompers and the ballads. Director Reed McColm, meanwhile, maintains proper focus on the two trio’s differences while still highlighting individual performers. He allows Hanson, however, to slip into the excesses of *Petticoat Junction* acting and then remain there for the duration. (Though neither of them are at fault for the string of lame, time-filling jokes that Howie saddles Hanson’s character with in Act Two.) At least Maynard Villers has contributed a set, complete with bar, beer signs and jukebox, that is among Interplayers's most striking.
*Cowgirls,* as I say, isn’t strong on narrative or characterization. Robel’s piano player is underwritten, and her acting doesn’t do much to improve the situation. A contrived crisis has the classical trio implausibly rehearsing country-style until just before the big performance. And interest flags in the second act, which has less narrative impetus than Act One and just provides setups for one musical number after another — with contrived and overly sentimental songs interspersed among the highlights.
And highlights there are, impervious to any snooty critic’s observations. When Jorgensen, as the honky-tonk’s owner, sings in “Kingdom of Country” about her favorite form of music being a kind of religion — and then modulates keys in the middle of the word “prayer” — you just feel you’re in the presence of someone who's walked along those lonesome highways. And an explosion of talent in the show’s final three numbers — “Concert Medley,” Jorgensen’s cry of self-redemption in “House Rules,” and the title song — featured performers scampering up the aisles distributing bags of popcorn. By that point, even the audience’s graybeards were a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’.
This show’s not as broadminded as it would like to be: The classical women get converted to the aw-shucks ways of country, but as for the reverse — well, that dog just won’t hunt. Bassoons lose every time to those big belt buckles.
But Jacobs plays cello and guitar, Morgan switches from violin to fiddle (!) to mandolin, and nearly all the songs are well-performed and rollicking. There is, quite simply, a lot of talent on display on the Interplayers stage. The messages are about sisterhood and — in a departure from country-ballad gloom — self-assertion. There’s no whinin’ in country — or in Interplayers’ lively production of *Cowgirls.*
[ photo: The Guide to Musical Theatre, nodanw.com ]