Work in slow progress

In taking five of author Willa Cather's early short stories and distilling them into a brand-new musical he calls Cather County, composer-librettist Ed Dixon would seem to have located one of the great themes of a great American writer: how the land transforms us even as we transform the land. Cather County could conceivably be placed on a 20th-century literary map along with William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Stephen King's Castle Rock (hey, the guy has written some memorable stuff). As to whether the residents of those two fictional landscapes would make the kind of lovely sounds that Lyric Stage's Cather population does, we can only speculate. The musical version of King's Carrie has already been consigned to the footnotes of theatrical curiosity, while Faulknerian topics like incest, castration, and a hundred-mile journey to purchase a good set of false teeth would certainly provide a lyricist with a challenge.

And yet, for all the impressive musical professionalism of Lyric Stage's world-premiere production of Cather County, there's a profound sense of incompleteness, of ambitions unrealized that hangs over this show. Ed Dixon's title nicely sums up one of Willa Cather's thematic obsessions, but the contents under that label never make a convincing case for this location as more than a theatrical shantytown, a site where pretty melodies, strong voices, and literary conceits (rather than fleshed-out characters) have come to stay for the day.

You could lay this flimsiness at a couple of different doors: Maybe the sparseness of the set flies in the face of a script that's supposed to draw so much inspiration from the environment (the bucolic Midwest of Hawkins Gap, somewhere around the turn of the century). And yet, the prairie was as flat, airy, and unspoiled as the stage of the Dupree Theatre in the Irving Arts Center, and besides, David A. Pretzlaff's lighting design is effective, sometimes even poignant (especially during the forest scenes), in its understatement. Or maybe attempting to transfer the earliest efforts of anyone, even as confident a prose stylist as Cather, into another medium is a risky affair, considering that the author had yet to master the field in which she worked.

A more likely culprit would be Ed Dixon's libretto script, which was being workshopped at New York's Playwrights Horizons when Lyric Stage founding producer Steven Jones discovered it. The posters outside the Irving Arts Center advertise this production of Cather County as a world premiere, but it still feels like a work in progress--and, frankly, one that has quite a few miles to go before it reaches its destination. There are no awkward moments, thanks to the seamless voices of the cast, but this musical doesn't try very hard at anything it attempts, so awkwardness is never an issue. Unfortunately, neither is the possibility of greatness, or even, at least, memorableness. Unlike a potent, unsentimental Willa Cather story, this show flies out of your mind the instant it's no longer in front of your eyes.

Cather County may claim to be a "musical," but it's actually light, dare I say it, opera, more influenced by Gian Carlo Menotti than (thank goodness) Andrew Lloyd Webber. Every line is sung. You can't really blame everyone involved for wanting to avoid the "O" word, which, fairly or unfairly, carries a lot of elitist baggage with it. You probably won't feel cheated once you've sat through a couple of scenes, because the cast that producer Steven Jones has assembled could win long-distance swimming competitions with the lungs of steel they wield here. As far as I could hear, nobody hit a false note, and two or three of the performers were comfortable enough in their marathon technique to coax some truly poignant moments out of the material.

All the action takes place during a 24-hour period and is linked by the amorous exploits of a handsome scoundrel named Jay (Steve Barcus). He breezes into Hawkins Gap and turns many female heads, including Nanette (Pamela Doherty), the meek assistant to an imperious opera singer (Diane Guthrie); a sister-duo of bank clerks named Jessica (Candace Evans) and Tommy (Kelley Murphy), who, despite her Catherian taste for dressing like a man, is apparently heterosexual; and the farmer's daughter Lena (Lori Evanson), whose affections are being violently sought by a macho mountain man named Canute (Greg Dulcie). The story with the least connection to these romantic shenanigans is the tragic romance between Nelly Bly (Dara Whitehead) and Allen Poole (Gaitley Matthews), the affable moonshiner she loves. By the musical's end, the scorecard goes thus: two happy endings, one unexpected death, one surprise family reunion, and two individuals who remain as unattached as when they started.

The show was pleasant enough to sit through and, at under two hours plus intermission, not the endurance contest that many musicals become. But reflect back on what you've seen after the curtain has fallen, and you see the characters are unrealized at best, utterly dispensable at worst. Take the central role, Jay, the dashing wastrel who unites so many of these situations: He gets relatively little stage time, so we hear second-hand about his prowess, far more than we witness it. And although Gaitley Matthews as Allen Poole gets one of the show's musical high points lounging under the trees, he remains, for the show's duration, a devoted bumpkin who wheels his illegal wares around like they were Popsicles. Wouldn't there be a devilish side to this scofflaw? Meanwhile, Greg Dulcie looks the part of the big-legged wilderness galoot, and that's pretty much all the role asks him to bring to it.

The female performers, who with one exception exist solely to react against these male ciphers, get an even rawer deal. Despite their winning vocal performances, Pamela Doherty, Dara Whitehead, Lori Evanson, and Kelley Murphy are slight variations on the same lovelorn-frontier-gal formula. Diane Guthrie gets a juicy grand dame role as the opera singer with a past, but her situation is introduced rather inexplicably to provide some purpose for Jay's presence besides wanton flirtation.

Spend enough time speculating about the ephemeral qualities of Cather County, and you're finally left to ask: Is Willa Cather really the best choice for a musical stage interpretation? She had an epic, rowdy vision, but it was mostly achieved through stunning descriptive passages and a sense of how national yearnings parallel personal ones. Stripped of her agility as a wordsmith, her plots and themes are fairly pedestrian, or at least they're rendered so on the live stage. A few pretty melodies aren't enough to rescue the trivialization of a great American writer's ideas.

Cather County runs through February 21. Call (972)252-2787.

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Jimmy Fowler