No movie would seem less suited to adaptation as a cheery musical than the kinky 1954 opus Johnny Guitar, radical director Nicholas Ray’s film-noir take on the heretofore predictable and realistically stylized Hollywood horse opera. Ray’s off-kilter psychological tale of a feisty, pants-wearing female saloonkeeper and her ex-lover, a retired gunslinger and ne’er-do-well (played respectively by Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden) has become a cult classic over the years due to its innovative combination of literate dialogue, bizarre characterizations and opulent cinematography.

And yet, in 2004, the team of Nicholas van Hoogstraten (book), Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins (music and lyrics) did just that, constructing an award-winning off-Broadway musical that played up the film’s campier aspects while diffusing its implicit sexual and political overtones. In fact, with its blend of pleasantly innocuous songs, its over-the-top comedic staging and its family-friendly, cartoony approach, the show resembles an extended Carol Burnett–type spoof of the Hollywood
oater, with cut-rate laughs replacing emotional insight and sight gags in place of lush movie scenery.

Even though the film’s intentions have been turned inside-out, Johnny Guitar is not without its own quirky charms. In its current incarnation at the cavernous Plaza Theatre, Empyrean Entertainment and its director Brian Minyard have assembled a thoroughly professional and endearing cast of players who waltz through the show’s dreamy Southwestern ballads and ersatz doo-wop tunes with tongues planted firmly in cheek.

Melissa Minyard, as Vienna, the strong-willed heroine, has a pleasing and mellifluous voice, and Stephan Jones, as the eponymous Johnny Guitar, proves once again that he can tackle any type of role with appropriate wit and self-effacement. His hilarious rendition of the comic number “Tell Me a Lie” is the hit of the evening. Stacy Schwartz mugs her way through the part of Emma Small, the story’s antagonist, like a seasoned situation-comedy second banana, but with only one song and precious little stage time, the multitalented Michael Andrew’s many gifts are underutilized in the all-too-small role of the Dancin’ Kid.


In the end, Johnny Guitar is merely a small pleasure, augmented admirably by the real-time guitar strains emanating from musical director John B. deHaas’ proficient combo. But one wonders, since the show’s creators have chosen to Disney-fy Ray’s inventive work, why didn’t they go all the way? How about throwing in a dozen chorus girls and a host of dancing gunmen? There’s no reason why this minor musical couldn’t grow to Texas-size with a couple of gaudy production numbers and tons more glitz and glitter. After all, isn’t that what Hollywood really did best?

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