I jus' saw this musical called "Johnny Guitar," and I cain't stop droppin' my g's or pullin' my Stetson down low over my eyes. It's tol'able good entertainment, folks, it surely is.
You might remember the 1954 western it was based on. Then again, you might not. Most westerns of the time featured a strong, silent man, such as John Wayne, in the lead. "Johnny Guitar" starred Joan Crawford, and the other strong figure in town was played by Mercedes McCambridge. The male lead, Sterling Hayden, was a man without a proverbial gun.
So for all the Freudian seriousness of this film by Nicholas Ray ("Rebel Without a Cause"), you can see how the setup could be of interest to theater folk looking for a campy, blue-state-style good time. Which doesn't mean you have to cover the kiddies' eyes or ears. Silliness rather than sexuality is the order of the day here.
And silliness we have in spades in SpeakEasy Stage Company's second production at the new Roberts Theatre in the Boston Center for the Arts. From Kathy St. George's opening vamp in a clinging red evening dress (she's the Crawford character) to her shoot-out with Margaret Ann Brady as Emma Small, the town tycoon (the McCambridge part), "Johnny Guitar" is to "Stagecoach" what "Rocky Raccoon" is to "Long Black Veil."
St. George is her usual hoot as Vienna, who runs the town saloon. After a sultry opening, we next see her in full Crawfordian fabulousness: form-fitting red blouse and jeans and a coif of curls. She has all the right moves, whether butch or femme, and the voice to back it up.
As good as she is, it's Christopher Chew who nearly steals the show in the title role. When Chew sings, you can hear some real Marty Robbins in his voice. That might have something to do with his big solo, "Old Santa Fe," being the most serious song in the show, recalling such standards as "The Streets of Laredo." In general, though, Chew understands that the straighter you play the part in a zany project, a la Leslie Nielsen in the "Naked Gun" movies, the more effective you can be.
While Chew easily summons classic country, St. George could use a little Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette in her voice. Perhaps she will once she gets "Menopause" out of her system. (She's on leave from "Menopause the Musical").
Not that this is a country score, but there are important country inflections. The talented writers Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins have fashioned a lively, hummable score out of country, doo-wop, and other pop elements, ably represented here by a four-piece band and synthesized strings. Among the supporting actors, Timothy J. Smith as the Dancin' Kid goes toe to toe with Chew. Brady is an amusing Emma, but her singing isn't exceptional. (On the other hand, Emma's songs aren't all that great to begin with.)
Director Paul Daigneault sees to it that everyone onstage and, to judge from the laughter at Sunday's opening, most everyone in the audience is having a good time. The comic timing is generally excellent.
It is somewhat disappointing, though, that the new space isn't used as well as it was in "Company." In fact, since there aren't any kind of risers, "Johnny Guitar" would have fit the old, more intimate Plaza Theater space -- with its more inclusive sight lines -- better than the Roberts.
The producers of "Johnny Guitar" would probably be the first ones to tell you that the musical is not all that interested in the anti-McCarthy subtext of the original film and that the show purposefully revels in frivolity.
It does seem lighter than it needs to be, though, particularly when compared to some of Ryan Landry's better movie sendups.
As entertaining and tuneful as "Johnny Guitar" can be, it could use a little more pluck.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.