What happens when classically trained musicians try to perform country music in order to save a debt-ridden honky tonk? As one of the main characters in "Cowgirls" explains early on, "this ain't just a bunch a notes strung together, it's a feeling" -- and that pretty much sums up this play.
The premise is simple. Jo Carlson is the owner of Hiram Hall, a country western bar in Rexford, Kansas, in the mid 1990's. Jo has to book an act strong enough to sell out the shows in order to pay back debts her late father incurred, and save the bar from being repossessed by the bank.
It's the old "Hey, since we need to raise money fast, let's put on a show!" theme, familiar to anyone who likes old movies starring Mickey Rooney.
To Jo's horror, as the play opens she has accidentally booked a trio of female musicians thinking they are called The Cowgirl Trio, but they are actually a trio of classical musicians, the Coghill Trio.
"Cowgirls" isn't the most original musical, but it's never boring. The songs and staging contain an abundance of energy, which carries the tale along on a tide of overflowing feelings and a lot of songs, twenty-three songs, to be exact.
"Cowgirls" was first produced at the Horizon in 1998, and since this is the 30th anniversary of the Horizon Theatre Company, they decided to revive it. The original director, Heidi Cline McKerley, was brought in to direct this new production.
What seems to be a simplistic premise actually turns out to be much more of a psychological exploration of the lives of the female characters. Jo Carlson, the bar's owner, lost her mother at a young age. Rita, the pianist for the trio, is pregnant, and having marital issues.
Mary Lou, the trio's violinist, undergoes a transformation. I won't give it away, but it's a complete country Cinderella-esque turn.
Lee, the free spirited cellist, is the polar opposite of Mary Lou. Lee is also a lesbian. [Spoiler alert] My favorite line of the play is when Lee is talking about her family and says "I'm the only one in my family who's not athletic, and for a lesbian, that's bad."
We know that Lee has not been lucky in love, but her sexuality isn't an issue in the play except for one brief moment when she tells Mickey, one of the bar's waitresses, something about not being interested in men, and Mickey's face registers total shock. That would be the expected reaction from a 1990's small town hick.
The bar's waitresses, Mickey and Mo, are fairly static characters, but they provide a lot of comic relief.
The songs are good, but not great. My favorites were "Looking for a Miracle" and "Don't Look Down." None of the actresses has a particularly great voice, but they all sing well. Amazingly, the members of the trio all seem to actually play their instruments.
Pearl Rhein, who plays Mary Lou, the violinist, stands out as an amazing musician. She plays the violin, mandolin, accordion and (I think) the bass and piano. She was also the strongest of the trio performers. Rhein plays her role with great verve and conviction.
Christy Baggett, who plays Jo Carlson, has to portray the most complex character in the play and it requires a masterful actress. Baggett clearly has the ability, but she could tweak her performance a little. For instance, she needs to dial back the energy about 5 percent on the louder songs, and be more quiet in the quieter songs like the Act 1 finale. Her voice was also a tad out of tune in a couple of places. Overall, though, she does a fine job.
I want to mention the set, because it is almost like a member of the cast. Hiram Hall is a vividly realistic bar. There appears to be a fully stocked bar, an office area upstairs, and there's a tiny stage area. There's a window, and the audience sees a big cowboy boot through it.
Set designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay are very talented. The set has many different levels and textures, and places where the instruments are stashed when they aren't being played. My only criticism is that there's a bear cub that appears to be chasing a man up a pole and I kept waiting for that to be explained.
"Cowgirls" is a really enjoyable show and I highly recommend it.
"Cowgirls" runs through June 29 at Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Avenue NE, Atlanta. For information or tickets, call 404-584-7450 or visit http://www.horizontheatre.com