Paging Carol Burnett and friends. Or Charles Busch and company. The inspired lunacy that both Burnett and Busch brought to their affectionate sendups of classic and not-so-classic movies is in dangerously short supply at the Century Center, where a modest, curiously sincere stage adaptation of the movie cult classic has ambled onstage.
Paging Carol Burnett and friends. Or Charles Busch and company. The inspired lunacy that both Burnett and Busch brought to their affectionate sendups of classic and not-so-classic movies is in dangerously short supply at the Century Center for the Performing Arts, where a modest, curiously sincere stage adaptation of the movie cult classic “Johnny Guitar” has ambled onstage.
For audiences unversed in the more curious byways of Joan Crawford’s career, or those who didn’t sign up for college courses with daunting names like “Subverting Gender Norms in Postwar American Film,” “Johnny Guitar” is a cinematic curio featuring the mannish, late-career Crawford as Vienna, a tough-as-leather saloon owner in the Wild West. She inspires an oddly passionate distaste in the heart (and loins?) of the town’s despotic ruler, Emma Small, played by a seething Mercedes McCambridge, in one of her more memorable film roles.
It’s a big ol’ catfight, basically, plopped down amid tumbleweeds and interrupted by heavy-breathing interludes involving Vienna and the title character, her guitar-strumming, gun-slinging lost love. Directed by Nicholas Ray just before he embarked upon the better-known “Rebel Without a Cause,” the 1954 movie has long been a favorite rental among gay and lesbian audiences, both for its suggestive sexual subtext and its smoldering, camp dialogue. (Explaining Emma’s hatred for a character called the Dancing Kid, Vienna says, “He makes her feel like a woman, and that frightens her.”) Cinephiles swoon for the arresting color schemes of its cinematography (it was shot in something called Trucolor — an outlandish misnomer).
This unlikely specimen now becomes the latest, if definitely not the last, movie to turn up in Gotham outfitted as a stage musical. But the show’s creators, Nicholas Van Hoogstraten (book), Joel Higgins (direction, music and lyrics) and Martin Silvestri (music), can’t seem to settle on a consistent approach to the tale. The stage version, which borrows pic’s plot and a fair amount of its dialogue, is neither a rip-snorting parody nor a poker-faced homage. Stylistically it falls between two barstools, and while it has been staged and performed with skill and care, the results are bland and pokey.
The show opens with star Judy McLane, a terrific vocalist, singing the title tune in a spangly white gown. It’s a catchy doo-wop number featuring a chorus of dancing cowboys. In one of the evening’s funnier gags, the boys fling out their guns to strike a pose at the climax — and one is shot dead.
This seems to cue the kind of raucous sendup that Burnett specialized in on her beloved TV series, in which movie melodramas starring Crawford or Bette Davis were pushed way over the top and rolled down the other side into deliciously low comedy. And McLane’s swaggering performance as saloonkeeper Vienna is a sly, hilarious tribute to Crawford’s in the movie. McLane wittily imitates the nostril-flaring brand of restrained overacting that Crawford practically trademarked in the 1940s and ’50s. She lopes forcefully around the stage in her skin-tight jodhpurs, striking the right masculine poses.
But when Vienna starts singing, McLane drops the drag act and tries to put across the character’s anguished ruminations on failed romance more sincerely. The effect is jarring, but the actress doesn’t really have a choice: The songs by Higgins and Silvestri are skillfully crafted rashers of country-flavored period pop, but they have little or no comic content.
It seems we are expected to take the cardboard camp characters seriously when they’re serenading us with these appealing, twanging tunes, and snigger at them when they’re romping around the stage enacting the hang-’em-high plot centering on Emma’s lust for Vienna’s blood. Theatrical whiplash ensues.