Whittier Community Theatre celebrates 93 years of entertaining audiences (and providing local 9-to-5ers a stage on which to strut their stuff by night) with Johnny Guitar The Musical, the campy off-Broadway adaptation of the 1954 Joan Crawford potboiler-turned-cult classic.
Movie buffs will recall Johnny Guitar The Movie as the Nicholas Ray-directed flick that pitted the ballsy Miss Crawford against the equally ball-breaking Mercedes McCambridge in a tale of love and lust in the contemporary West.
Crawford was saloonkeeper Vienna (no last name needed) and McCambridge played her longtime rival Emma Small, whose mission in life was a town without anything or anyone remotely Viennese.
As befitted any Western worth its pistols, who should arrive in town but a mysterious stranger (hot and handsome of course, and played on screen by Sterling Hayden), who turned out (to no audience member’s surprise, I’m guessing) to be none other than Vienna’s ex.
Completing the film’s love quadrangle was Scott Brady as “The Dancin’ Kid,” another of Vienna’s former flames and so renowned for his dance prowess that whatever first and last names he was born with remain to this day anyone’s guess.
Along the way, moviegoers were treated to a bank robbery, a shoot-out or two, and a lesbian subtexted girl-on-girl showdown the likes of which moviegoers may never have seen before or since.
Johnny Guitar The Musical’s book writer Nicholas van Hoogstraten and lyricist Joel Higgins recognize that despite the much improved reputation Johnny Guitar The Movie has gained over the years, it’s not high art they’re adapting, and they make this clear from the musical get-go.
We’ve only just gotten into the slinky-gowned Vienna’s torchy rendition of the show’s title song when a quartet of cowpokes suddenly pop up from out of nowhere (actually from just behind the saloon bar) to sing backup, and it takes not much longer for one of their guns to accidentally transform the quartet into a trio that keeps on harmonizing without missing a beat.
It’s not long after this that Johnny Guitar arrives in town, prompting the first of the musical’s multiple running gags. (Whenever anyone say’s Johnny’s last name, a guitar lick sounds, prompting whoever’s onstage to react with shock, confusion, irritation, and ultimately resignation.)
Not surprisingly given his moniker, wherever Johnny goes, his guitar goes too. Not that it has any strings on it, and not that this matters, since despite the constant stream of musical notes emanating from said guitar, only occasionally do his fingers do any strumming.
As for Johnny’s rival for Vienna’s affections, there aren’t many cowboys who can dance, let alone dance quite like The Dancin’ Kid, who is (how can I say it nicely?) no Gene Kelly. (I’m reminded of Sonny’s description of Usnavi’s dance moves in In The Heights: “Like a drunken Chita Rivera.”)
Composers Martin Silvestri and Higgins give us one hummable tune after another in a variety of genres, from Tex-Mex (“What’s In It For Me?) to country rock (“Branded A Tramp”) to western lullaby (“Welcome Home”) to power ballad (“Tell Me A Lie”), and lyricist Higgins gives us plenty of melodramatic gems like “They were on fire like moths to the flame of desire.”
It’s all great good fun, and though WTC’s production doesn’t match the professional sheen of Johnny Guitar’s 2006 Southern California Premiere at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts, any production of this deliciously campy treat bears checking out, and for a cast of non-professionals, there are some very good performances in WCT’s.
Director John Francis and assistant director Nancy Tyler understand Johnny Guitar The Musical’s tongue-in-cheek tone, and though there are times when cast members could stand some reining in, less sometimes being more even where camp is concerned, and though I would have liked to see more of that lesbian subtext, several leading players in particular give performances that belie the production’s community theater status.
Mallory Kerwin’s glamourous tough gal Vienna and Lindsay Marsh’s bad-girl-next-door Emma make for a terrific pair of adversaries, the duo’s performances heightened just enough to pay tribute to Crawford and McCambridge while still earning laughs, and both are fine singers.
The charismatic Jay Miramontes couldn’t be better as the darkly sexy Dancin’ Kid, and kudos to choreographer Shannon Kane for giving Miramontes the freedom to let the Kid do his hilariously graceless thing.
As for Johnny himself, though Matt Berardi plays Mr. Guitar with ample enthusiasm (though perhaps not quite enough restraint), he is miscast in a role that calls for a young Paul Newman/Clint Eastwood type and is not nearly as vocally strong as his three costars.
Greg Stokes makes for a tasty villain in the role of McIvers, with WCT regulars Richard DeVicariis, Andy Kresowski, Justin Patrick Murphy, and Jonathan Tupanjanin providing expert four-part harmony in their multiple amusing cameo roles.
Johnny Guitar The Musical benefits enormously from Kevin Wiley’s first-rate musical direction and a live orchestra (Stephen Anastasia, Tony Del Castillo, Andy Morsesi, Ben Rhodes-Wickett, and Wiley) that sound as good as many you’ll hear in a professional production, and Kane’s choreography makes savvy use of cast members’ varied degrees of dance prowess.
Set designer Mark Frederickson has given Johnny Guitar a colorful scenic background that lets our imaginations play a great part. Karen Jacobson’s costumes and Jacobson’s and Tyler’s properties are a terrific-looking bunch. Dominic Misher’s lighting and Suzanne Frederickson’s sound design more than do the trick.
Johnny Guitar The Musical is produced by Jacobson. Lindsay Zuber is stage manager and Vincent Rodriguez is assistant stage manager.
Whittier Community Theatre’s labor-of-love plays and musicals may not have the professional veneer of higher budgeted productions around town, but what WCT does, it does very well. Johnny Guitar The Musical is just the latest example of 93 years of topnotch community theater out Whittier way.
The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave., Whittier.
February 28, 2015