Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
I Want to Laugh More! – Inconsistency of focus mars WCT’s “Johnny Guitar the Musical”
Over the past couple of years, one of the last of the strongly supported community playhouses, the all-volunteer Whittier Community Theatre, has produced several spunky productions of American musicals. Most particularly, their “Into the Woods” was quite stunning, and shows like “Quilters,” and “The Pajama Game” have garnered worthy praise. Thus, when I saw that their new production of the spoof of classic westerns, “Johnny Guitar,” leaves much to be desired, it does not come from the company’s amateur status, but from a misread on the part of those organizing the production.
“Johnny Guitar,” by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, Joel Higgins, and Martin Silvestri, takes the standard western formats and, if done right, plays them all with tongue firmly in cheek. Even the story sounds like all the B-westerns from the heyday of such things. Miss Vienna, a bad girl gone good, owns a bar outside a small western town – a town operated in tandem by Emma, the daughter of the founder of the town bank, and McIvers, the area’s largest landowner and rancher. Emma, holding a secret passion for the outlaw The Dancing Kid, is out to destroy Vienna for her supposed romantic connection to the Kid. Into all of this rides a man of height and heart bearing a guitar instead of a gun. But does he have a more violent past? Will he help Vienna?
Yes, it’s just that silly, and the staging should add more. Sound effects must be huge, choruses should appear from behind rocks, furniture, curtains, etc. Everything must be played large and melodramatically, resulting in almost constant chuckles and some significant outright laughter. Visual comedy can be emphasized, like constant references to Johnny’s being so tall, when the actor is not. It should be fast-paced, and moderately ridiculous. That’s what makes it work.
The production at WTC can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is going to play the thing straight, and thus awkwardly, or live up to the wry humor of the script. At the start, it shows promise, when the opening ballad has the chorus suddenly pop out from behind the saloon bar, and continue singing unphased when one of their number is gunned down. The sound effects are right, and the minimalist set has just the right elements. Some of the cast – most especially Jonathan Tupanjanin, as the youngest of the outlaws – can really sing up a storm, and for the most part all sing with enough energy and conviction to make it work.
But it’s uneven. They get serious too often, and that seriousness slows things down. Sometimes the chorus sings from offstage, when having them appear, sing, and disappear would have given more stage business, and more comedy to something which begins to feel drawn out.
As Vienna, Mallory Kerwin has the heart for the thing, and a powerful voice, but is visually wrong. She should look like a slightly more risqué Miss Kitty (for old “Gunsmoke” fans) but spends much of her time in an outfit more suitable to Dale Evans. Matt Berardi has great potential as Johnny. He has the swagger and the overly cool delivery down. There could be much comedy, though, as in his “playing” of a guitar which obviously has no strings, which is otherwise just kind of awkward.
Lindsay Marsh is solid – that is, slightly overdramatic and intensely repressed, just as she should be – as the vicious Emma, while Greg Stokes makes a stolid and gruff McIvers. Jay Miramontes truly enjoys his role as The Dancing Kid, though the dancing should be emphasized more, particularly if it’s going to be as intentionally unimpressive as it appears when he finally performs. Justin Patrick Murphy, Andy Kresowski and Richard DeVicariis have a lovely time playing henchmen, posse members, bartenders and the like, and, joined with Tupanjanin, becoming the chorus for song after song.
The live band accompanying them is small but good. The mics need to be balanced more, as some (especially Kerwin’s) are cranked up too high while others are very hard to hear. Special kudos to the stage crew who utilize the elements of Mark Frederickson’s very facile set design to change scene quickly and keep the pace going.
In short, this is good enough that it should have, and could have, been better. Consistency in the over-the-top melodrama of the piece would have let to more laughter (though there definitely were some funny moments) and made it all feel more cohesive. Director John S. Francis is experienced enough to know that this. What this show needs is real tongue-in-cheek everything, as the story line is just as light as the old Saturday serials, and the music is memorable more as a satire on musicals and westerns than as great art. Still, this company deserves the community’s support. Community theater, where volunteerism is prized, is always worth supporting.
What: “Johnny Guitar the Musical” When: Through March 7, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 1 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org