Remember the days when musical comedies derived their humor from characters and situations? Some great shows were actually written that way, but when writers discovered how much easier it is to evoke laughter by commenting on their characters' ridiculous plights, that form took over. After all, Urinetown ran for over two years; audiences must want to see musicals written that way, right?
Those same audiences could be able to keep Johnny Guitar, which just opened at the Century Center for the Performing Arts, running for a while, too; it'll be right up their alley. But whether it will be up yours is a different question. An hour and forty minutes of non-characters in non-situations singing non-songs for non-reasons isn't going to appeal to everyone.
Still, Johnny Guitar, with a book by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, music by Martin Silvestri, and music, lyrics, and direction by Joel Higgins, is a show that insists on entertaining in spite of itself, and, somewhat surprisingly, mostly succeeds. Then again, the reason for its success, as limited as it may be, is that it takes almost nothing seriously, including its source material.
It's based on the 1954 western film noir that found Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge (who just recently passed away) strutting their way through a sordid tale of female rivalry. There's even a nominal plot - Vienna, a bad girl gone good, owns a saloon that promises to pay off big once the railroad is completed, but she runs afoul of cattle baroness Emma, and gets caught up in a web of deceit and romantic intrigue.
The actual story couldn't have mattered less to the musical's creators - there were just too many jokes about the film's mock-serious tone (and barely suppressed lesbian subtext) to be made. And what better way to make those jokes than by writing a musical? Or kind of a musical, at least. It's one of those shows where, every time the name of the title character (a man with a secret from Vienna's past) is mentioned there's a brief guitar solo that all the characters seem to hear, where gunfights seem to go on forever, and where every clichéd western threat might as well be made with a wink to the audience.
With those winks comes the comforting realization that, whatever else may be said about Johnny Guitar, it is at least a very funny show. From the first moment, when a lone tumbleweed rolls across the stage, there's no doubt that you're in for some kind of a good time. And the jokes come at you so fast and furious, there's no way you can fend them all off, even if you find yourself wishing, as I did, that even just one would come from an honest emotional place.
The same thing can be said about the score, which is hardly uninteresting or poorly composed, but has no real reason for being. Aside from the title song, a sort of 50s story-ballad that establishes the style of humor to be used in the show, the songs are almost entirely disconnected from the action. Rather, they just suggest how ridiculous an idea it would be to make Johnny Guitar a musical in the first place: Vienna sings a song about her roulette wheel, Johnny starts a mock-anthem about a man only needing a smoke and a cup of coffee and later begs Vienna to lie to him about her feelings in grand over-the-top fashion, and... you get the idea.
One can only speculate about why anyone would write a musical and then make fun of its being a musical, but at least the creative team treats it as one in other ways. The band, under the musical direction of James Mironchik, sounds good, and the sets (Van Santvoord), lights (Ed McCarthy), and costumes (Kaye Voyce) are all in the irreverent nature of the show. The cast members, too, have just the right senses of humor, looks, and talent, with Judy McLane just right as the stolid Vienna, Ann Crumb crisply funny as the sexless Emma, Steve Blanchard an understated riot as the title character, and Robert Evan exuding fine bravado as The Dancing Kid, the trouble-making object of Emma's affections.
But Johnny Guitar isn't a musical about its cast, its story, or its songs, so lengthy discussion of them is pretty much beside the point. It's a show about finding comedy wherever you can get it, and van Hoogstraten and Higgins have certainly done, but at the expense of what might give the show some sort of lasting impact. If you want to laugh, see Johnny Guitar immediately, but if you want to feel something - anything - go somewhere else.