Friday, June 10, 2011

No blues for these ‘Cowgirls’

Tom Robbins to the contrary, not all "Cowgirls" get the blues. Some get country ...

Case in point, the eponymous Cowgirls of "Cowgirls," now kicking up their heels at Florida Studio Theatre, in a production directed by Mary Murfitt. (Murfitt played in the musical's FST premiere back in 1995. She also wrote the music and lyrics. Betsy Howie wrote the script.)

The story behind the musical is as tangled as the World's Largest Ball of Twine. But I'll try to straighten it out.

After a disastrous summer tour, The Cog Hill Trio, an ensemble of female classical musicians, head off to Hiram Hall for their final concert. They're expecting the Kansas cousin of Carnegie Hall. Thanks to a bad phone connection, the owner, Jo Carlson (Angela C. Howell), is expecting the thoroughly countrified, cornpone Cowgirl Trio. When they finally show up, Jo's shocked to discover that she's booked a snooty classical musical group. They're appalled to find out that Hiram Hall is a redneck roadhouse resembling Bob's Country Bunker in The Blues Brothers.

The trio takes the gig anyway, because it's either that or come home broke and disgraced. Their Saturday night concert is a make-or-break night for Jo as well. If it isn't a smash hit, the bank forecloses on her place first thing Monday morning. Against her better judgement, Jo gives the uptight trio a two-day crash course in country music. Comedy ensues. And, just to state the obvious, country music does, too.

Great tunes. But Howie's strong character study is the glue that holds this musical together.

The Cog Hill Trio, for example, is a true band of misfits: Lee (Joanna Parson), a New Age, lesbian cellist; Rita (Franca Vercelloni), a pregnant pianist whose husband wants her to stay home; Mary Lou (Sarah Hund), a high-strung violinist. Jo, the roadhouse owner, is a true force of nature a no-nonsense Alpha Woman dealing with her father's dual inheritance: Hiram Hall and a mountain of debt. Jo's faithful waitresses, big-haired Mickey (Chelsea Costa) and math whiz Mo (Emily Grosland), are also wannabe country singers; they're pissed-off that Jo won't them take the stage for the big concert. By the end of the play, they all have a shootout, everyone dies and Hiram Hall burns down.

Nah. Just kidding, folks. That's not the way these things work and you know it. The concert is a raging success. Everybody takes the stage and Hiram Hall is saved.

While the musical's upbeat conclusion is never in doubt, getting there is all the fun. Cowgirls is a warmhearted, feel-good, tug-on-your-heartstrings experience from start to finish. It’s so much fun, it’s easy to overlook what a tour de force performance the actor/musicians put in. Leaping from genre to genre takes amazing versatility, and they’ve got it.

Behind the performance, Howie's script introduces you to some sharply defined, quirky individuals (who all happen to have XX chromosomes) and makes you care about them. It's easy to be warmhearted, manipulative and fake that's called corn. Being warmhearted and honest is tough, but she pulls it off.

Murfitt's a great director and a great songwriter, to boot. Her original songs are fantastic on many levels. They're a love letter to country music standards but never derivative. They're character-driven and support the story. They're damn good tunes that take you all over the emotional map. They're pure country and ignore the ghettos of musical genre, at the same time. The "country" of country music is the country of the human heart, after all. Murfitt's songs gently make the point that all great music comes from the heart.

Which is another way of saying all great music is a little bit country.

Through July 3
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

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