A cowboy spoof, “Johnny Guitar, the Musical,” is Off-Broadstreet Theater’s choice for its 200th production, a landmark that deserves to be celebrated. “Johnny Guitar” started life in the 1950s as a nonmusical movie vehicle for Joan Crawford and has since become something of a cult film. The dominant female characters played by Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, as well as the negative references to McCarthy-era tactics, made the film troubling to many in the industry, but apparently gave it a special cache among French filmmakers. Some 50 years later, a musical version, with book by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, lyrics by Joel Higgins, and music by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins, opened off Broadway and won the 2004 Outer Critics Circle award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical, as well as a host of nominations from other prestigious professional groups.
The tone of Off-Broadstreet’s “Johnny Guitar” is sunny and cheerful and presents the audience with a puzzle: How can this delightfully upbeat music relate to what is unwinding on the stage? Director Robert Thick has turned something that is potentially problematic into a delight. If you think about what is happening on stage, it is dark, but that is not what you hear in the music.
The action takes place in a small Arizona town in the late 19th century. Two women dominate the plot (and the town): Vienna, the saloon keeper, and Emma, who owns just about everything else in town. The ostensibly pious Emma disapproves of the way Vienna carries on, drinking and flirting, but her real concern is to eliminate a rival, and this pious soul is willing to stoop to anything to maintain control of the town.
Vienna is looking forward to the railroad’s scheduled arrival in town; she believes it will be good for her business. Emma, on the other hand, does not want the world to change and is therefore not happy about the railroad. When the show opens, Johnny Guitar, ostensibly a stranger, has just appeared in town, but before the show is over, it becomes clear that he has a secret past, part of which Vienna shared.
Various plots are hatched, primarily by Emma as she seeks to rid herself of her rival, and the audience is treated to a crescendo of revelations, narrow escapes, and occasional heroic behavior. Gun fights are frequent (almost every character carries at least one gun), and again the audience is in Thick’s debt: the guns may look real and may be fired often, but as Thick tells the audience before the show begins, the noises they make are purely electronic. Thus a potentially serious source of anxiety becomes another source of amusement.
This is basically a play about things not being what they seem. Emma presents herself as the proper preserver of values, but she will use whatever means necessary to get what she wants. Johnny Guitar turns out to have had an unsavory past, and seems to wish to avoid engagement, but when it matters, manages a heroic rescue. The music is itself one of the most surprising aspects of “Johnny Guitar.” These are not traditional cowboy or country western tunes. Indeed, there are echoes of doo-wop, and the ballads are generally good natured, reflecting none of the raw edges that abound in the plot. One of the great charms of this production is watching the doo-wop quartet sneak quietly on stage in the midst of a dark melodramatic standoff to croon its sunny chords.
Anchoring the music is a four-piece ensemble with Sue E. Miller on piano, Daniel Kaplowitz on guitar, Steve Pasierb on bass, and Jack Furlong on drums. The orchestra pit has been placed high above the stage, a most successful strategy. The action often takes place inside Vienna’s saloon, but it can also be in the mountains or a mine shaft or the town bank. The resulting changes to the set are minimal, but the results are always clear, and no matter where the action is, the set is dominated by images of two huge cactus plants.
The costumes, designed by Ann Raymond, while not extravagant, do their job, and in the case of the cowboy boots, are definitely entertaining. When we first meet Vienna, she is dressed in skin-tight jodhpurs and high-heeled cowboy boots, but the range of the cast’s boots is striking, from low- to high-heeled, from plain to decorated with metal studs.
Vienna is played by Alison Quairoli, who has delighted Off-Broadstreet audiences over the last two seasons with her range. Here she adds another dimension, and shows herself to be a competent singer as well as actress. Although not all the lyrics of her songs came through (which was also a problem for some others in the cast), the difficulty will probably disappear as the run proceeds and the cast becomes more at home with the production. Almost everyone in the cast is an OBT veteran: Emma is played by Michelle Russell, recently seen at OBT as a nun in both “Nunsations!” and “Meshuggah-Nuns!,” and Johnny by Timothy Walton, an OBT veteran who teaches voice in Franklin Township. Also in the cast are Geoffrey Barber, Tod P. Gregoire, Gavin Lawrence, Michael Lawrence, Vince Moffa, and Tony Parisi.
The appeal of “Johnny Guitar” should extend beyond those who know the film or who are devoted to westerns or to musicals. The good-natured spoofing of this production and the skill of both the conception and the execution should captivate a much wider audience.
Johnny Guitar, through Saturday, March 22, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Western musical based on a 1954 film about a salon keeper, a tycoon, and a cowboy. $25.50 to $27.25. Performances at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (dessert at 7 p.m.), and a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Sundays (dessert at 1:30 p.m.). 609-466-2766.