Steve Blanchard and Judy McLane in
Johnny Guitar(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Steve Blanchard and Judy McLane in
Johnny Guitar
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Much is being made of the fact that the new musical Johnny Guitar is based on the 1954 Nicholas Ray movie of the same title, which starred Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, and Sterling Hayden. With all due respect to the source material, we seriously doubt that people are flocking to see this new show because of their fond feelings about the film. Johnny Guitar was little seen when it was released and, at best, it's become a cult favorite admired by a relative handful of hardcore cineastes. In the long run, the musical may stir interest in the movie more than the movie will help sell the musical.

A parody that gently mocks Westerns in general and the melodramatic sexual politics of Johnny Guitar in particular, this sweet-tempered musical has only one simple, worthy goal: to entertain the audience. A "don't take this seriously" tone is established from the start of the show with an inspired bit of business that sends a tumbleweed tumbling across the stage. Better still, during the saloon-girl number that serves as a prologue to our tale, the backup-singing cowboys amusingly pop up behind the bar. In effect, this tells us that nothing is sacred here and that we should feel free to laugh.

Don't worry that you won't enjoy this parody if you haven't seen the movie; the musical works on its own terms. Judy McLane, with help from costume designer Kaye Voyce, bears a vivid resemblance to the haughty, masculine Joan Crawford. McLane holds the stage like an iconic colossus, whether togged out in tight jeans with a gunbelt strapped around her waist or sashaying across the stage in a bright red dress. She is matched by the deliciously laconic Steve Blanchard as Johnny Guitar; he all but steals the show with his deadpan delivery of "Tell Me a Lie," at the climax of which he rips open his shirt. Robert Evan has two swell musical turns as The Dancin' Kid and an amusing little dance moment, as well. Ann Crumb is Emma Small, the hilariously repressed villainess of the piece. With her eyes flashing, she can't decide whom she desires more: McLane's imperious Vienna or that dashing bad boy, The Dancin' Kid. Unable to understand her emotions, the tempestuous Emma would rather see both of them either shot dead or lynched.

The music, by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins, is in a variety of styles ranging from country to folk to genuine musical theater brass, all of it with an undercurrent of pop. The tunes are catchy and engagingly melodic. Higgins's lyrics are uneven but, more often than not, dryly clever. If the songs tend to embellish the plot rather than drive it, they're nonetheless diverting. There's just one dry spell in the middle of the first act when you start to wonder where the music went; but, otherwise, the tunes come along with enough frequency that you happily anticipate the next amusing ditty. Nicholas van Hoogstraten's book follows the basic outline of the movie and Higgins's direction is inventive -- although it's too bad that the catfight scene between Vienna and Emma, so prominent in the movie, gets short shrift on stage.

Johnny Guitar isn't going to set the musical theater world ablaze; it's a modest effort with minor ambitions. But, in this season of meager offerings, it's good to have up and running a show that only wants to entertain and succeeds in doing so.

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Yeardley Smith in More(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Yeardley Smith in More
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
More is a Bore

Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson, is starring in her own one-person show titled More at the Union Square Theatre. Run, don't walk, in any other direction: An agonizing confessional in the guise of theater, this unpleasant little exercise in self-indulgence is not going to make a stage star out of Smith.

In some respects, the show is extremely well crafted. It's directed with sharp attention to pace and movement by Judith Ivey, who has done an excellent job of keeping the piece from becoming visually static; additional credit for that goes to lighting designer Beverly Emmons. But all of that good work is in the service of a story that will have little interest to general audiences or to fans of The Simpsons. Smith's personal journey, so intimately detailed here, comes off like therapy rather than theater. This is definitely an example of More being less.

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Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway
Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway
Sing, You Siblings!

The Callaway kids, Ann Hampton and Liz, are together again. Nine years after these two Tony-nominated Broadway and cabaret stars joined together to create their much-beloved act Sibling Revelry, they have a new show at Feinstein's at the Regency. Ann Hampton and Liz Callaway are sisters not only in blood but also in musical mastery. They sound sensational when singing together; the title of their show is Relative Harmony, and that's not false advertising.

The Callaways have the same three-piece band they had nine years ago, led by the exceptional musical director Alex Rybeck at the piano. The conceit of the act, like that of the previous one, is their mock rivalry. It's a little bit like the routine of The Smothers Brothers, except that neither Ann nor Liz is the dumb one. Things sometimes get a bit shticky as they try to top each other, and some of the throwaway jokes they tell should be thrown away for keeps; but you can't touch them when they're singing, either together or solo. Their duet of "That's The Way I Always Heard it Should Be" is a knockout, and so is their smartly conceived combination of "Stormy Weather" and "When the Sun Comes Out." Among the solo turns, Ann builds beautifully to a power ballad finale in "My Answered Prayer," while Liz's performance of "Make Someone Happy" coupled with "Something Wonderful" could not be more fully realized, either musically or emotionally.

Relative Harmony continues at Feinstein's through April 3. The show's pleasures aren't relative; they're absolute.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegelentertainment@msn.com.]