A trio of classically trained musicians is mistakenly booked to perform as a country-western act at a failing Kansas roadhouse.
That’s the potentially funny (if admittedly far-fetched) premise of “Cowgirls.” As surely as one member of the touring group is a New Age-y lesbian and one of the small-town yokels is a would-be Daisy Duke in big hair and short shorts, the cultural differences between them clash as inevitably as their musical styles.
Conceived by Mary Murfitt, who also wrote the songs, and scripted by Betsy Howie, the show was a resounding success 15 years ago for Horizon Theatre, the venerable Little Five Points company that’s currently remounting it as part of its 30th-anniversary season. Back at the helm is director Heidi Cline McKerley, who also staged the earlier version.
But as stubbornly as a thirsty tick, to borrow a line from one of its own corny caricatures, “Cowgirls” gradually depletes most of that initial promise. The basic situation is overly contrived to start with, and the superficial stereotypes only make it harder to swallow some of their sappy back stories or the eventual suggestion that they might discover certain common bonds.
The results are wildly uneven, to say the least. Under the music direction of S. Renee Clark, the show contains a dozen or so boisterous honky-tonk numbers — and yet the most memorable song highlights are a couple of quieter, more introspective ballads: “Don’t Look Down,” nicely performed by Paige Mattox on guitar (as that free-spirited lesbian), and “It’s Time to Come Home,” a rousing anthem delivered by Christy Baggett (as the no-nonsense bar owner).
The musical demands of the roles far outweigh any legitimate acting challenges. The three women playing members of the Coghill Trio, for instance, are required to be proficient on several instruments (violin, piano, cello), which probably explains why two of them have been cast from out of town (Mattox is local).
Katherine Anderson, as the pregnant manager of the group, hails from North Carolina. Most versatile is the New York-based Pearl Rhein as an uptight snob who undergoes the biggest transformation, not so much letting down her hair as putting on a silly bouffant (wigs by George Devours) and a gaudy getup of sequins and fringe (costumes by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, who’ve also designed another of their typically extraordinary sets for the show).
Rounding out the ensemble are Ally Duncan as a brassy bimbo and Christy Clark as a rather superfluous bartender.
Depending on your own appreciation of such “hillbilly music,” you may or may not believe a minute of “Cowgirls.” A few of the songs kick butt, but otherwise the show is too broadly drawn to be very genuinely felt, at once laying it on too thick and spreading itself too thin.