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One Wild Oater

Campy musical take on classic Nicholas Ray flick purely for the cast's family, friends

By John Barry | Posted 5/27/2009

Johnny Guitar

Book by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, lyrics by Joel Higgins, music by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins

Through June 7 at Fells Point Corner Theatre

Imagine a one-horse town on the Santa Fe trail. A couple of cowpokes sit around a table drinking shots of hooch. The madam of the house spins the roulette wheel. And somewhere out of the blazing horizon comes a man with no name. He kicks open a door and asks where the audition is.

Johnny Guitar may not have everything down about the Wild West. But back in 1880, before New Mexico started filling up with all those arty types, community theater was probably a little like it is depicted here, a rootin', tootin', hip-hollerin' good time. And the reviewers probably didn't pussyfoot around with it one bit. In that spirit, there have been times this season--with Tracy Letts' Bug and Harold Pinter's The Homecoming--when Fells Point Corner Theatre has truly raised the bar on community theater. Well, with Johnny Guitar, it's back in the cactus patch.

Of course, no one was expecting King Lear. Johnny Guitar, which hit New York in 2004, is a good-humored send up of the 1954 Nicholas Ray movie that starred Joan Crawford. It wasn't her peak as an actress, but she was beginning to hit her stride as a gay icon. As Vienna, she plays the self-supporting madam of a seedy gambling den on the Santa Fe trail before the railroad comes through and the price of real estate starts going up. That's fine with everyone but Emma, a bank-owner, and her economic and romantic rival.

In the lead role, Maribeth Vogel Eckenrode does a pretty good Joan Crawford. She doesn't hit all the high notes, but she takes control, and that's what the part requires. This musical isn't really what you'd call hot-blooded, but there are a couple of romantic interests--guys who either dance or sing. The Dancin' Kid (Jim Knost), is, as the play opens, Vienna's current love interest. He wears leather pants and--well, it passes for dancing out in the Old West. Then there's the eponymous Johnny (Jonathon Ruckman), a blast from Vienna's past, who shows up armed with a guitar. The Dancin' Kid holds up the town bank, and Johnny and the crew head out to the pass to wait for the sheriff and his posse.

This tongue-in-cheek adaptation isn't exactly plot-driven, but the story heads in several directions. The romance between Johnny and Vienna reboots. The Dancin' Kid hitches up his leather dungarees and rides off into the sunset. The string-necktie-wearing, no-bullshit DA McGivers (Mike Ware) gets one of the low-lifes (Shane Logue) to snitch on Vienna. Emma (Julie Bauer) is the town bank tycoon, who wants to string Vienna up. And she gets what she wants. By the middle of act two, Vienna's got the noose around her neck, and . . .

Well, if you're looking for suspense, that's the white-knuckle moment. But this Johnny Guitar is a comedy, and at a few times this production starts to spark. Sitting in the cellar of the saloon, for instance, Johnny moves into his signature tune, "Tell Me a Lie." The song itself is a dud, but there's a sly wink. Johnny starts to rip off his bright blue shirt and wiggle his hips. For a moment, it looks like the musical is about to take off.

But such instances are just that--mere moments. Just when it feels like the production is starting to get so bad that it might get good--or, at least, redefine bad--Johnny Guitar moves back into more subdued territory. And that's where it pretty much stays throughout: sure, the actors have their talents, but they're not jumping in whole hog.

Maybe they don't have the time. Reading through the extensive resumes, it's pretty clear that they have lives outside of theater, and some of them have pretty good jobs. They're having a good time and, sometimes, that's what it's all about.

But if you're in the audience, and you just paid $20, and it ain't your dad or girlfriend up there on stage, you probably want to do more than sit back and watch. Bring a little flask of your own--and maybe a popgun. That's probably what they did back in old Santa Fe--before they got that Opera House.

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