Cowgirls in the Bland
I haven't seen a stranger show in a while--one more packed with diverse agendas, crossed-genre elements, a bipolar alternating need to entertain and uplift--than the musical production currently running in the Stage West half of Allied Theatre Group. Indeed, because I could never quite get a bead on precisely what playwright Betsy Howie and composer Mary Murfitt wanted to achieve with Cowgirls, I'm in danger of issuing one of those obnoxious critical qualifications like "an interesting failure" or "an ambitious mess."
Watching their tale of three classical musicians who learn country music to save a legendary honky-tonk from a looming bank note was like playing tennis with an octopus, as the old saying goes. The potpourri of themes on display here--elitism vs. populism, the merits of being self-taught vs. rigorously trained, how country and classical are really more alike than musicians of either stripe would like to admit, mid-life career changes by women artists, the conflict of family and career, the burden of having a famous parent, and lesbian pride--come sailing across Allied Theatre's wide, high-ceilinged venue from every possible angle. They are picked up and served repeatedly until you wonder which song or performer will hoist which theme among the tangle on display here. The easy, oft-made comparisons to this show--Nunsense, Six Women With Brain Death, a musical version of Parallel Lives: The Kathy and Mo Show--don't really fit, if only because the authors of those revues were far more modest and disciplined with their material. They weren't nearly as interested in marrying music and comedy with affirmations of self-worth and comparisons of Chopin and Patsy Cline. Cowgirls feels like a pitch for a TV show that's been stretched across the length of a script: It's one convoluted premise with righteous feminist slogans tacked on across the pages like garish yellow sticky notes.
The final element that perhaps made Cowgirls so confounding is that, in the current Fort Worth production, it's exceedingly well-performed. You spend your time marveling at the spontaneity of this all-woman cast, how they can work the tricky ensemble rhythm to bring the house down with a one-liner and then pick up a fiddle or an acoustic guitar and play it with casual skill. It's a small miracle that veteran Stage West director Jerry Russell and musical director Aimee Hurst have found six artists who can act, sing, and play musical instruments. I've spilled my share of ink bitching about musicals, but most directors who specialize in the form will speak frankly about what rehearsing them requires, i.e., maneuvering around deficiencies. Performers who are talented in all of the ways that a musical demands are extremely rare creatures, so rare that almost every production with song and dance involves the director compromising, settling, accepting a person who has a helluva voice but little flair for dialogue, or vice versa. Hence, that tendency to encourage actors to go for the broad laugh and the easy tear is the requisite compensation to keep everyone on the same page.
Allied Theatre's high standards for performance and direction no longer startle me; I just wish their typical marvel had been performed in service to a book and score that overreached less and accomplished more. Their investing so much in Cowgirls does prove a bit jarring to an audience member, as it creates a distance between material and ability that's disorienting. One moment, the voices of Pam Dougherty, Lynne Rutherford, and Katy Bowen as the instrumentalists are united with crystalline force in a three-part harmony of "Sigma, Alpha, Iota," a music-school expression of pride at the classical tradition, and the next, the three actors are prancing through painful country vaudeville with giant blonde and brunette countrypolitan wigs on their heads. Sing great, look silly; talk well, say stupid things--these frictions reign throughout the show, keep it perversely watchable for most of the evening, and make you leave feeling all of this talent has been loaned like a fancy dress to an earnest friend too ungainly to wear it properly.
Running for more than two years Off-Broadway, Cowgirls received raves from New York critics who, rather like the white pop music writers who gleefully weigh down their columns with urban black slang when critiquing hip hop, bent into painful contortions to sling those Southern white trash references. "A joyous slapstick hoedown...that wrings every last drop of tipsy moonshine humor" from its premise, beams The New York Times. "Warm as a heated mobile home!" gushed the Daily News. If I were trapped with Benjamin Brantley inside a double-wide, I'm sure a jug of corn whiskey would be mandatory to survive the sheer bizarreness of the moment. Yet when it comes to merrily, condescendingly typing about America beyond Manhattan's shores, no experience is too downhome for those New York boys to relate to. The reviews echo the general retread feel of the countrified characters here: Jo Carlson (Melinda Wood Allen, a dynamite vocalist who shares Patsy's mixture of country sincerity and bluesy sophistication), the cantankerous owner of Hiram Hall whose late mother was a music legend, and Jo's employees Mo (Gigi Cervantes) and Mickey (Debbie Dacus). It's not that there's no truth inside these roles, it's that they're the same truth that we learned the instant we met these eccentric saloonkeepers so many incarnations ago. Mary Murfitt, who conceived and composed this show, was the daughter of a Kansas music teacher who studied violin and listened to George and Tammy on the radio. I venture to guess (though I can't verify) that she spent rather more time with a bow and sheet music, because Cowgirls has an outsider's admiration that's really just a class variation on the noble savage theme. She romances the scene more than anyone who's been puke-drunk in a honky-tonk dive ever would. Or, as Mo the waitress puts it succinctly, "The higher the hair, the closer to heaven!"
To be fair, it's not just classical musicians Rita (Dougherty), Lee (Rutherford), and Mary Lou (Bowen) who are redeemed by the cornpone feast they're served when wires get crossed and their Coghill Trio is confused for a group called the Cowgirl Trio. Jo Carlson learns to stop reflexively judging city slickers, and to quit being so protective of the country tradition. Mo gets to meet a real-life lesbian when Lee, who sings an admittedly touching tune about how she has grown sick of switching the pronoun of her girlfriend to the masculine when operating in the mainstream, says she'll match her ex-wives with Mo's ex-husbands any day. Well-intentioned, yes, and generally true, but so much consensus smothers dramatic or comic effectiveness. Everyone's so busy learning how alike they are that Betsy Howie's book blands everybody out. This effect is expressed best in the bad hick drag Allied Theatre utilizes for this show: When they're trapped underneath those sprayed manes of country hair, the uniquely talented cast members all become identical.
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