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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
In 1954 a Western in which the final shootout had the men watching from the sidelines as the women duked it out was something of an over-the-top precursor to the feminist movement. To add to its cult credentials, there were those who read allegorical ties to the McCarthy "Red" baiting into the film's fight between the haves (Emma) fighting the newly arrived would-haves (Vienna).
With the film's cultish profile raised by its 50th anniversary and last year's packed screenings at the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Forum, a musical adaptation was as inevitable as a saloon having swinging doors. And so Johnny Guitar, the Musical, has arrived at the Century Center with tongue as firmly planted in its cheeks as the guns are in the holsters of reformed bad girl Vienna, and Emma, her nasty nemesis.
Naturally, the musical will inspire the most appreciative whoops and hollers from those familiar with and fond of the original Johnny (Sterling Hayden), Vienna (Joan Crawford and Emma (Mercedes McCambridge -- the only one of the trio who might have come to see this show if she hadn't died just a week before its official opening). The show's campy evocations of those actors are fun to watch though the edge gets blunted pretty fast.
Director Joel Higgins, who also wrote the lyrics and music (in collaboration with Martin Sivestri), has staged this adaptation with enough pregnant pauses and premeditated mugging to clearly telescope the show's don't take us too seriously intentions. Van Santvoord's Southwest flavored set supports this mood by having a clump of tumbleweed, a moon and other props materialize as if they were actors doing star turns.
Nicholas Van Hogostraten has managed to make room for the songs without straying from the film's basic plot: Vienna, has settled in the town sure that it will soon be a stop for the railroad and make her newly opened a saloon a success. Even though Eddie, who spins the saloon's roulette observes "I've never seen a woman who was more like a man," he and the other townspeople like her. Not so Emma. She owns the bank and most of the rest of the town but has been unlucky in her passion for Dancin' Kid, the leader of a gang of thieves. The Kid of course, is crazy about Vienna. To protect herself against Emma's dirty tricks, Vienna has summoned Johnny Guitar (a made-up name for the gunman who now strums a guitar instead of pulling the trigger) which leads to the rekindling of . their long ago but not forgotten love affair. The feud with Emma comes to a head when Emma pins the Kid's bank robbery on Vienna. Johnny rescues her from the end of a lynching rope and the bad blood between the women culminates in the fatal shootout.
The music's Country Western twang is pleasantly but not memorably melodic. It's amplified with restraint and performed by a cast of twelve that includes actors, singers and instrumentalists. The dialogue includes many of the more pungent interchanges from the movie. One of the songs, "A Smoke and a Good Cup of Coffee" takes its title from one favorite Johnnyism -- "There's only two things in this world that a 'real man' needs: a cup of coffee and a good smoke."
The key players resemble the originals just enough to make the spoof work, and each gets one of the better solos: "Branded a Tramp" for Vienna (Judy McLane -- who's also delivers the opening song as the sexy Title Singeg) , "Who Do They Think They Are?" for Emma (Ann Crumb), "Tell Me a Lie" (the male equivalent of a torch song) for Johnny Guitar (Steve Blanchard) and "The Gunfighter" for the Kid (Robert Evan). Ann Crumb is particularly apt at camping it up as a meaner-than-Mercedes Emma. Blanchard almost outdoes her when he ends his big solo by ripping open his shirt. .
As musicalized versions of nonmusical movies go, Johnny Guitar is more fun than some that have come down the pike but not noticeably more distinguished. It clocks in at a brisk one hour and forty-five minutes, including the intermission, a pace which comes at a cost since the second and shorter act seems rushed -- especially the Vienna-Emma shootout which is a noisy but not very exciting off-stage affair.
Unlike the golden oldie film fans, musical theater buffs are likely to find the music too repetious and the spoofing too sophomoric. While suitable for all ages, the kids who were much in evidence at the press matinee I attended, undoubtedly missed the campy allusions to the movie.
This good-natured, hokey show may well draw tourists who usually don't venture below Forty-Second Street to the booming Union Square theater scene. If it lasts through the summer, the easy entertainment loving convention goers headed our way may enjoy having Johnny welcome them with a big "Howdy."
In case you're hankering to see the original film, it's available at our book store: Johnny Guitar, the movie .
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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