Friday, June 11, 2010

ASF: "Cowgirls"

Talent abounds in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's production of "Cowgirls", directed by Karen Azenberg, who also directed & choreographed ASF's production of "West Side Story", and choreographed "A Christmas Carol: the Musical" and "Beehive".

Not only do the six actresses act and sing their roles, they are also called on to play an assortment of musical instruments ranging from cello to mandolin and from piano to washtub in the two hour performance; and they demonstrate a variety of musical styles from classical to country. Impressive.

The plot is simple: Jo Carlson, the daughter of a celebrity country-singer mother, owns "Hiram Hall", a bar/entertainment venue that is about to be foreclosed on by the local bank unless she can come up with a substantial amount of money almost overnight. Her mother has been away for many years, and her father squandered the money and refused to hire women to play at the Hall for now 39 years.

To raise the necessary funds, Jo has contracted what she believes is the "Cowgirl Trio"; in fact, the three women who show up are called the "Coghill Trio", a classical group of graduates of Coghill College who are also down on their luck, near the end of an extended B-circuit tour. Lots of comic potential here.

None of the trio has any experience with country music, but Jo's two waitresses are eager to perform and want to help her out. What ensues is fairly predictable: the classical trio determine to assist Jo by learning how to play country music, and their journey -- and everyone's journey of compassion and humor and understanding and coming to terms with their individual hang-ups -- sustains the plot.

Most of the play is an extended exposition, and it isn't till the final moments that they actually perform as the "Cowgirl Trio". But when they do, the event is a foot-stompin' delight -- partly because they have transformed into a really good country act, and partly because we have become invested in their lives.

When Act I opens on Peter Hicks's two-level interior of Hiram Hall in Rexford, Kansas, one can almost smell the years of smoke and spilled beer, the brown wood aged just enough and the numerous photographs of country stars and old advertisements reach out to include the audience, so the external world that is never seen through its windows hardly matters. This is the world for the present.

Rita [Pearl Rhein], Lee [Tamra Hayden] and Mary Lou [Jessica Tyler Wright] rehearse Beethoven's "Sonata Pathetique" and audition with Gilbert & Sullivan's "Three Little Maids", much to the consternation of Jo [Angela C. Howell] and her two employees, Mo [Chelsea Costa] and Mickey [Carrie Cimma], but soon convince Jo to give them a chance at learning to "sing country".

Under Jo's tutelage, either as a group or individually, each learns from the other, and even the waitresses are given their chance at performing. The "Trio" learns in fits and starts, stumbling over interpretations of "feelings" rather than accurate notes, till they are all seduced by the music and the lyrics.

But other lessons are learned as well: "Don't Look Down" offers advice that fear can be conquered if we don't succumb to it and if we trust in help offered by those who are close to us, and a mother's love that sustains us throughout our lives is clearly told in "Songs My Mama Sang".

Individual personalities emerge as we watch the relationships grow, and by the end, most audience members will have chosen a favorite and will cheer the spunk and achievements of this excellent ensemble.