Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre
Through May 21 at TPAC’s Polk Theater
Call 255-ARTS for ticket information
OK, so take three really talented female musicians who play piano, violin, guitar, cello, and mandolin. Get ’em up onstage in a honky-tonk setting, have ’em sing the daylights out of a selection of country and folk-based tunes in perfect three-part harmony, and you have...what?
Well, if you’re at the CMA Awards, you probably have the Dixie Chicks. If you’re at the Tennessee Repertory Theatre these days, you have the stars of a musical comedy called Cowgirls. It’s really quite a rollicking show. It’s also clean-as-a-whistle entertainment, which means that everyone who could go should go. Rarely do we get to see such a blend of multiply talented people onstage at one time.
Let’s quickly dispel one notion: Cowgirls is not a rip-off of the Chicks. The show first debuted in Florida in 1994, later made the rounds in various regional theaters, and eventually wound up in New York, where it grabbed an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for best off-Broadway musical. For this production, most of the Rep’s cast members played their roles before in other venues, not the least of whom is composer/lyricist Mary Murfitt, who proves by evening’s end that God doesn’t dispense earthly gifts on an equitable basis. But more on her later.
The premise of the play is a tad lightweight: Now at the end of a dismal tour, three classically trained ladiesthe Coghill Triofind themselves inexplicably booked into a place called Hiram Hall in a backwater Kansas town. There’s been a silly mix-up, of courseCoghill, Cowgirl...get it?and the honky-tonk’s owner, Jo Carlson, expecting a trio of country players, tells the ladies to skedaddle. Into the breach rush the bar’s waitress and cook, who have performing aspirations of their own. Not to be denied, the traveling musicians dump their longhair repertoire, and they slowly but surely (but not without difficulty) make the successful transition into hillbilly musical heaven.
To add some tension to the proceedings, there’s also a subplot wherein Jo is in danger of losing Hiram Hall to competing interests due to her late father’s disastrous financial misdeeds. This adds sort of a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland, let’s-put-on-a-show-and-save-the-orphanage undertone to the whole evening. Especially near the beginning, the book by Betsy Howie is not executed with any exceptional wit, and sometimes it’s even pretty lame. But it has enough firepower to launch the considerable musical talent onstage, and once that happens, you can tear down the chicken wire.
Calling the three leading ladies ”actors“ would be a little like saying Nat King Cole had a pretty good lounge act. At curtain’s rise, Murfitt, Mary Ehlinger, and Kristi Wedemeyer are playing sublime Beethoven on violin, piano, and cello, respectively. By the time the curtain rings down, they have each distinguished themselves as talented multi-instrumentalists, capable comedians, and strong-voiced singers. Their ensemble playing and acting are nothing if not exuberant, and in one way or the other, their performances are a wow.
Wedemeyer doubles capably on guitar, balancing a sexy insouciance with a comedic sensibility reminiscent of Carol Burnett in her heyday. Ehlinger offers distinctly humorous moments as the trio’s pregnant piano player, then brings down the house with a solo tune called ”Honky-Tonk Girl.“ Murfitt simply dazzles the crowd with her fiddle playing throughout, offering a sober reminder of just how rare a treat it is to watch a single, gifted human being just stand there and play. She does quite well on the mandolin too. Murfitt also wrote the words and music to the generally tuneful, happily eclectic score, and her singing and acting are good as well.
Contributing mightily to the show’s success is singer/songwriter/actress Rhonda Coullett. As bar owner Jo, she hits all the right notes as the original, aging cowgirl/entrepreneur. She commands center stage in several lively numbers; singing with the gravelly power of a woman who’s had her share of heartaches, she leads the entire cast in the very moving Act 1 closer, ”Looking for a Miracle.“
Solid support is provided by Julie Rowe as Mickey the barmaid and Beth Musiker as Mo the cook. They have three duets between them, the funniest being ”Don’t Call Me Trailer Trash.“
Director David Grapes keeps the action moving at a lively clip, which is to say he basically lets the cowgirls play. He is both helped and hindered by Gary C. Hoff’s ambitious multilevel set, which is impressive in size and stunningly decorated with the clutter that gives old saloons their character. There are times, however, when it seems to take the ladies too long to tromp up and down the stairs, and one is tempted to think that, for all that’s commendable about Hoff’s work, less might have been more.
Otherwise, there’s little else to quibble about. Cowgirls is delightful theater, and in its own little way, it reaffirms all that is good about homegrown American music.
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