Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
In addition to their annual original musical production each December, the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) usually presents at least one other musical to complement their season of plays. In the past, ETC has included newer shows with an edge, such as Violet and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. With their latest effort, Cowgirls, they have again selected a piece written within the last few years, but one with a more lightweight storyline.
Cowgirls is a musical comedy that focuses on a trio of classically trained female musicians that is mistakenly booked to play Hiram Hall, a country western concert bar in Kansas. The owner of the club, Jo Carlson, must raise enough money during the weekend to pay off debtors or the hall will be closed. Though mostly unfamiliar with country music, the trio convinces Jo and her employees, Mickey and Mo, to allow them the chance to transform themselves into legitimate cowgirl performers in time for the first performance.
The book for Cowgirls is credited to Betsy Howie (based on a concept by Mary Murfitt) and is successful on some levels, but is less than satisfactory in other aspects. The musical is a comedy and there are plenty of laughs produced from the show. The piece is essentially a one-joke play, having three professional musicians attempting to overcome their snobbish pride and fears in order to become true honky tonk women. Luckily, Cowgirls succeeds in milking that one joke for a lot of humor. However, problems do exist. The plot is as predictable as a sitcom, and the dialogue is sometimes stale and unnatural. A great deal (maybe an unproportionately large amount) of effective backstory is given for club owner Jo, leaving the other five female characters underdeveloped.
The score for the show, which played Off-Broadway in 1996, is by Mary Murfitt. There is an effective mix of song styles including classical, country, traditional musical theater, and many blending all three. For the most part, the score consists of character and performance songs rather than ones that advance the plot, but the tunes are melodic and the lyrics capture the humor and humanity of the plot capably.
The spirited and multi-talented cast of Cowgirls, including the composer and several cast members from the Off-Broadway production, assist greatly in making this an entertaining production. Rhonda Coullet, recreating the role she played in New York, is convincing as the gritty club owner Jo Carlson and handles many of the show's more serious moments well. Lori Fischer, who just completed a run at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park in her one woman show Barbara's Blue Kitchen, likewise returns to her role as Lee, the new age lesbian cello player in the trio. Ms. Fischer expertly provides many of the lead vocals, is funny (yet not too cartoonish in the role), and is equally adept at guitar and cello. Sherry McCamley is known to many as the Director of Theatre at local Anderson High School, but here she appears as Rita, the pregnant pianist for the group. If her acting chops are not quite up to those of some of the others, her pure signing voice and impressive musicianship are great assets to the show. Composer/lyricist Mary Murfitt generates the most laughs as the prudish, self-restrained Mary Lou, violinist and leader of the classical trio. Her dry wit, physical comedy, and rigid resistance to the change to country crooner produce many laughs. Her great skill on several instruments and capable vocals complete what is a winning performance. In supporting roles, local favorite a. Beth Harris (Mo) and Amie Church (taking on the role of Mickey that she understudied in New York) add additional fine musical abilities and well-delivered humor.
Director D. Lynn Meyers successfully keeps the pace of the show running quickly and makes the most out of emphasizing both the humor and the pathos of the piece. Ms. Murfitt serves as Musical Director for the production.
The set design by Brian Mehring uses the space well to include a performance stage, bar, and seating area, as well as the concert hall's office on a second level. The set creates an authentic country atmosphere and is both fun and functional. Reba Senske's costumes are appropriate to each individual character and are, as usual, professionally rendered.
Cowgirls is not overly thought provoking theater, but it is a lot of fun and this production boasts a wonderful cast of seasoned professionals. The Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati presents the show through May 19, 2002. For tickets, please call (513) 421-3555.