Between them stand the title character,
played by a somnolent Sterling Hayden, and a bland bank robber called
the Dancin’ Kid, played by Scott Brady. Shot in Trucolor, a
soon-to-be-abandoned color process that accentuated deep saturated
tones and blurred details, the film was not a popular success, but was
widely admired by critics abroad, among them filmmaker Francois
Truffaut. Here in the states, Johnny Guitar became a campy cult classic.
While the musical adaptation of Johnny Guitar,
this season’s final offering at Cortland Repertory Theatre, may not
achieve either distinction, it’s a deliciously conceived and acted
send-up of 1950s Westerns. The miracle is that the stage adaptation by
Nicholas Van Hoogstaten, with music by Martin Silvestro and Joel
Higgins (known to 1980s-era TV fans as Ricky Schroeder’s dad on Silver Spoons) with lyrics by Higgins, keeps the one-note joke rolling happily along for a full-length performance.
As directed and choreographed by Cortland Rep veteran Bert Bernardi and played by a jim-dandy company, Johnny Guitar
never strays far from the movie parody formula popularized on TV by
Carol Burnett. Using large swatches of the dialogue from the film, then
acted at hyperspeed and punctuated by the knowing turn of the head or
dramatically flaring nostrils, the musical plays out the sweaty
pseudo-poetry of Philip Yordan’s original script with a straight face.
Vienna, the Joan Crawford character,
runs the saloon and gambling joint in a town slated to become a
railroad stop. Backed up by a posse of cattlemen and a weak-willed
marshal, vicious Emma Smalls, who owns everything around but Vienna’s
place, demands she leave town. When Emma’s brother is killed in a
stagecoach robbery, Vienna’s man, the Dancin’ Kid, is a likely suspect.
Enter mysterious stranger Johnny Guitar, and the melodrama begins in
earnest. At least on the screen, that is. In the musical incarnation,
the psychosexual high jinks of the movie are played strictly for yuks
by Cortland Rep’s nifty little ensemble.
First appearing in a prologue as a
sultry 1950s-style lounge singer backed up by a doo-wop quartet,
silken-voiced Chrysten Peddie sets the wry tone with her rendition of
the title song, a witty take on western movie themes spiced by a dash
of torch song. As the heroine Vienna, Peddie doesn’t attempt to
approximate Crawford’s mask-like makeup or her athletic swagger,
delivering her lines with a winking B-movie earnestness. She meets her
comic match in Megan Rozak as her nemesis, Emma. Reminiscent of Andrea
Martin in her SCTV days, little dynamo Rozak barrels through
the show as the manic villainess. Bringing in the lesbian undercurrent
adored by the film’s cultish following, Rozak and Peddie have fun with
a couple of heavy-breathing moments.
As Johnny Guitar, Scott Moreau exploits
the comic value of a deadpan delivery punctuated by a strategically
arched eyebrow. In the anything-for-a laugh-department, Jeffrey Victor
endows the Dancin’ Kid with a hysterical twitchiness that certainly
would have livened up the original. His enthusiastic demonstration of
how the Kid got his name is a masterpiece of silliness. As his
henchman, the unbalanced man-child Turkey, Geoff Lutz is all puppy-dog
eyes and jagged nervous gestures.
Rounding out the cast, Chris Nickerson
channels all the lily-livered lawmen in moviedom. Song-and-dance men
Danny Blaylock, Matt Vavalle and Sean Riley literally wear many hats as
they effortlessly glide from role to role.
Johnny Guitar’s design team are
clearly in on the joke. The economical but evocative scenic design by
Jo Winiarski approximates the movie’s red rock background with a false
proscenium creating a movie screen effect. Shawn Boyle’s effective
lighting design recreates the saturated blue sky of the Trucolor
original, and Jimmy Johansmeyer’s costumes capture the essence of the
western divawear sported by Crawford and McCambridge. Notable is a
witty take on the white dress Vienna wears for a pivotal scene.
Tuneful, harmless and delightfully silly, Cortland Repertory’s Johnny Guitar is a perfect last theatrical picnic of the summer season.
This production runs through Saturday, Aug. 30. See Times Table for information.