'Cowgirls' Seems to Have Ridden the Range Too Long


When it emerged in the mid-'90s, "Cowgirls" was a giddy if lightweight musical that had audiences clapping and stamping along to its country-western-flavored score. Based on the half-dead version that is being presented by Music Theatre of Southern California, however, one wonders whether the show shouldn't be put out to pasture.

The core idea is terrific: A female classical-music trio travels to a gig in rural Kansas only to find that the music-hall proprietress there is expecting a country-western group. Since the hall desperately needs an act, the musicians resolve to teach themselves how to play country music--overnight.

The production is essentially the same as the one presented by Fullerton Civic Light Opera two years ago. As in that engagement, the show features four members of the original San Diego and off-Broadway casts, as well as the original director, Eleanor Reissa. The Fullerton set--a hulking old hall decorated with steer skulls and beer signs--also gets reused.

Unfortunately, time and repetition appear to have worn away whatever spontaneity Reissa and her performers once brought to this material. There's hardly a believable moment to be found in the dialogue scenes, which in turn magnifies the show's most catastrophic weakness: its insistence on telling the not-very-interesting background stories of the six female characters instead of just letting them sing.

Mary Murfitt, who conceived the show and wrote its songs, has devised several numbers in which familiar classical themes give way to country-flavored sounds--a playful way of indicating the musicians' evolution. Things don't really start cooking, however, until the final 15 minutes, when Betsy Howie's dialogue finally stops and the music takes over.

The most gripping performance is given by original cast member Rhonda Coullet, playing the music-hall proprietress. She's like a character in a country song: vulnerable yet resilient as she faces disappointment and loss. True to that spirit, Coullet shades even her sassiest numbers with a delicious ache--though she sings with such a pronounced rasp that one worries about the health of her vocal cords.

Also from the original cast are Murfitt, a co-creator and original cast member of the similarly fluffy "Oil City Symphony," as the classical trio's starchy violinist; Mary Ehlinger as the trio's pregnant, nurturing pianist; and Jackie Sanders as a big-haired country chanteuse wannabe.

"Cowgirls" delivers some luminous images of sisterhood and womanly ingenuity, along with a heartwarming vision of music's transformative power. Too bad that so much of the good has been stampeded by the bad.

* "Cowgirls," San Gabriel Civic Auditorium, 320 S. Mission Drive, San Gabriel. Thursdays-Fridays,8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends July 22. At the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, July 27, 8 p.m.; July 28,2 and 8 p.m; July 29, 2 and 7 p.m. $22-$42 at both venues. San Gabriel: (626) 308-2868. Glendale: (800) 233-3123. Running time:2 hours, 10 minutes.

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