Credit Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre with giving its devoted patrons something different in a summer musical. Typically, reliable old friends like The Sound of Music or Annie are the bill of fare. So it’s risky for a relatively conservative operation like the Barn to present the Nashville premiere of Johnny Guitar: The Musical, which was as a surprise off-Broadway hit in 2004.
Risky because the source material—Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Western starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden and Mercedes McCambridge—was a controversial melodrama featuring a sexual role reversal that was rather daring for its time. Crawford and McCambridge square off as the power-brokering females in an Old West town, with the guitar-slinging Hayden caught in the middle of the catfight. Though many critics panned the film at the time of its release, Johnny Guitar’s campy story and feminist slant have earned it a cult following.
Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins’ musical version basically sticks to the story, though it requires the performers to somehow rise above the camp. The creators throw in 15 songs with a retro feel, grazing through various genres, including cowboy country, ’50s pop and a little gospel. The atmospheric musical accompaniment includes saloon-style tack piano and low-end twanging guitar with the classic spaghetti-Western tremolo effect.
So how do you spoof something that’s already an unintentional parody? The actors have to hit the right tongue-in-cheek tone while still going for the arch drama. In this regard, the new Chaffin’s production is a hit-or-miss affair, and it may take time for the cast to get its bearings.
Director David Compton’s work sometimes seems overwhelmed by the script: actors search to find the right rhythms and pauses in the dialogue, which tends to make the blocking look haphazard. In Compton’s defense, there’s a lot going on—a bank robbery, a hanging, a climactic shoot-out and plenty of overwrought posturing, the latter designed to bring laughter that too often doesn’t happen. More critically, the pacing is often closer to the desolation of Death Valley than to the excitement of Dodge City.
The acting is inconsistent too. Derrick Phillips, who made his notable Nashville debut last year in People’s Branch Theatre’s Western musical Zombies Can’t Climb, reprises his combative codger routine, and he displays a firm grasp of this play’s exaggerated style. In the same way, Patrick Waller fares well as the aggressive punk The Dancin’ Kid, and he leads the way in one of the better musical numbers, “What’s in It for Me?”
Martha Wilkinson is Vienna (the Joan Crawford role), a saloon owner who stands to gain financially when the new train starts to roll through town. As always, Wilkinson’s singing is clear and professional, but she struggles to define her character. Her occasional self-conscious mugging is delivered with a wink, but it doesn’t always work as humor or faux pathos. In contrast, Kimberly Nygren, as Vienna’s archenemy Emma, performs with swaggering strength throughout, despite some challenges with the higher notes in “Who Do They Think They Are?” It’s tantalizing to wonder how these two would’ve fared if they’d reversed their roles.
Throwing a wrench into the works is Joe Robinson as the title character. He’s tall and robust, but his portrayal is unsure and musically disappointing (especially his soulless rendition of his big solo, “Tell Me a Lie”), and he comes off clueless about his metaphorical importance to a story that pits the forces of progress vs. the status quo. Furthermore, he fails to establish the necessary emotional connection in his important duet with Wilkinson, “We’ve Had Our Moments.”
In support roles, Cody Taylor, Daron J. Bruce, Jeffrey Alan Walker and Hugh Adam Burnett fill in the spaces in the action, and do a nice job as Sons of the Pioneers-style backup singers.
The production’s technical and musical aspects are generally strong. There are fun sound effects, like pounding hoof beats and a rustling wind, and Billy Ditty’s costuming is effective. The five-piece band, led by keyboardist Susan Black Brown, tackles the wry score with confidence under Tim Fudge’s musical direction. Lucas Costner’s guitar work, especially in the song “Old Santa Fe,” is a standout.
Though its language is essentially benign, Silvestri and Higgins’ stage adaptation holds up as a family-friendly piece. Still, even under optimal circumstances, it’s an acquired taste. For all its gumption, this particular staging could stand to be rescued by a posse that has not yet arrived.