Pulp Western

Guitar doesn't play camp culture straight

Now onstage at Coral Gables' Miracle Theatre is Johnny Guitar: The Musical, which respins the tale of when the West was wild, the men were tough, and the women were Joan Crawford. Though the score is surprisingly gentle and its songs don't match the transgressive thrills of the motion picture that inspired them, it works as a lively musical. Powerhouse performances by Rachel Jones, Stacy Schwartz, and David Kelley will keep you smiling long after the curtain's fall. This musical version of Johnny Guitar is no masterpiece, but it's a hoot.

The original is weird enough. Nicholas Ray's 1954 Western has been many things to many people, from a parable of the Red Scare's witch-hunt of the Fifties to a precursor to the feminist movement of the Seventies or the drag classics of the Eighties and Nineties. American critics at first mostly panned it, but the French New Wave later thought the picture was swell, rich in subtext, that sort of thing. True, much of what defines a cowboy picture is exposed in Johnny Guitar, including a bank robbery, a wild chase on horseback, lots of shooting, an outsider saloon-keeper with a past, and resentful locals who long to have one. But no matter how you deconstruct it, Johnny Guitar is not your usual B-Western. How could it be, when the big confrontation at the end is not the expected shootout between tough cowboys but instead a catfight between two really, really tough women? How tough, you ask? The casting explains everything: Crawford, just then entering her fourth decade as Hollywood leading lady, was almost outbutched onscreen by Mercedes McCambridge at her manliest. No wonder even the most faithful movie fans tend to forget that Sterling Hayden played the male lead: How could any man have a chance?

Johnny Guitar: The Musical evens out the playing field — not so much by beefing up the male lead, mind you, but by softening the edges of the tale and allowing third-generation cult humor to take its merry course. If the movie was edgy, tough, and still a camp, the musical is sweet and good-natured. Nicholas van Hoogstraten's book hews pretty closely to the movie even while replacing much of the violence with song cues. A song in the prologue is the musical high point of the show: clever, satirical, and very funny. Elsewhere, Joel Higgins's lyrics are cute, and Martin Silvestri's music often sounds not so much like a country and western tribute as an homage to Tony Orlando and Dawn. At least two of the songs threaten to segue into "Knock Three Times (On the Ceiling if You Want Me)." Still, the music doesn't get in the way. And the leading roles are juicy.

Everyone could be just a tad more over-the-top
Everyone could be just a tad more over-the-top

Details

Book by Nicholas van Hoogstraten. Music by Martin Silvestri. Lyrics by Joel Higgins. Directed by David Arisco. With Rachel Jones, David Kelley, Stacy Schwartz, Shane R. Tanner, Ken Clement, John Bixler, Terry M. Cain, Francisco "Pancho" Padura, and Henry Gainza. Through December 18. Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-444-9293, www.actorsplayhouse.org.

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How's this for an entrance? After a lot of talk among the cowboys about a beautiful woman called Vienna who owns a saloon in the Old West, the lady appears at the top of the stairs, ready to sing — and shoot. It's a two-beat entrance, actually. As in the movie, Vienna enters, preceded by an industrial-strength, high-beam bra that points ahead with much more promise of danger than the gun at her side. Here and everywhere, the beautiful Rachel Jones makes the most of the role. If her knowingly nuanced Vienna is more Anne Baxter than Joan Crawford, that is probably a wise choice; aside from Faye Dunaway, only a man could play Joan Crawford, really. Jones has the figure for the role, and she boasts a healthy, gorgeous belt that makes as persuasive a case as possible for the music. In the pensive "We Had Our Moments" near the end, her singing even captures the elusive sweetness that makes the best country singers cross into sheer loveliness.

As her nemesis Emma, a repressed puritan who hates the lusty Vienna and probably also has the hots for her, Stacy Schwartz seems to have wandered in from The Wizard of Oz or maybe Wicked, evil-drag-queen smirk permanently in place.Her one-note wicked-witch act works, though. And her voice is terrific. Most surprising of all is David Kelley as Johnny, given that the title role is less than zero in the original. The lanky, hunky Kelley here channels Clint Eastwood in his best Man-with-No-Name mode, as straight and straight-faced as they come, very much the "just a tough man/tender enough man" of the title tune.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag, with Ken Clement slightly irritating as he screams his way through the role of Sheriff McIvers, Shane R. Tanner succeeding against type as the Dancin' Kid, and John Bixler — a dynamic young actor here playing several roles — stealing scenes from everyone except Jones. David Arisco's stage direction and choreography have the right idea but perhaps could have used more rehearsal time. Musically, everyone down to the smallest role is terrific. Dramatically, everyone could be just a tad more over-the-top, much faster, and more precise. In other words, camp. But when the ghost of Crawford smiles on the show, whenever Jones is onstage, Johnny Guitar: The Musical works.


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