I Married Wyatt Earp

Book by Thomas Edward West and Sheilah Rae
Lyrics by Sheila Rae
Music by Michele Brourman
Directed by Cara Reichel
Choreographed by Joe Barros
Featuring Ariela Morgenstern, Anastasia Barzee, Heather MacRae
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
production web site: http://www.nytheatrebarn.org/

May 20, 2011 — June 12, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
May 24, 2011

A musical out of the American frontier that has been in various stages of development for the past 17 years or so. (I learn this fact not from the press materials but from a website about the play: http://tinyurl.com/3nf3cty.  First readings of materials related to this show are listed in 1994.)  In its current form on the small stage of Theatre B at 59E59 Theaters, I Married Wyatt Earp presents a stage filled with singing and dancing women seeking adventure, freedom, and release from the restraints of class boundaries and Victorian sensibilities in late 1800s Arizona (in flash back) and 1940s Los Angeles.  It is also a story of two woman in their old age coming to grips with details in their past, confusingly told.  Sixty years of no resolution, no contact, no comparison of notes?

Legendary events at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona in the 1880s are not much illuminated in this musical treatment of the women in the lives of the men who featured in the gun battles, deaths, and confusion in that western locale. In fact when the men’s stories enter in too much detail, the core of these women’s stories gets muddied.  At times we feel as though we’re about to experience a version of The Harvey Girls (girls from the East seeking a fresh start in the untamed West).  At other times the women’s narratives are submerged to the stories of the men in their lives, and yet for the most part only the women are speaking to each other.  The submersion is particularly troubling dramatically when the ineffectual, even damaging, decision is made at a few points of the story to have one of the women actors portray two different male characters  — unnecessary to the story telling, confusing in the narrative, and (whether it is the particular actress who presents these brief portrayals or whether it is the attempt in any actress’s hands) may add some unintended layers.  Carolyn Mignini portrays Josie Earp as a woman in her 70s, and (in a Grey Gardens move) 1870s/80s Josie’s mother as well.  She is speaks as Wyatt Earp when he and Josie first meet in a Tombstone  performance hall (hands in suspenders, oddly pitched voice, almost saying “little lady”) and portrays Doc Holliday physically abusing his mistress.  Neither interaction need be dramatized at all and by dramatizing those scenes in this particular manner we see several woman characters (portrayed by the same actress — the important effects of multiple casting) as abusive in ways that don’t seem earned. And the male voices are brought front and center into the narrative in a creepy and invasive way.

The 1940s women (meant to be in their 70s and 80s but they are not convincingly aged with makeup and hair — these characters move, act, and look in their 60s at most) are Josie Earp, Wyatt’s widow (Carolynn Mignini) and the delightfully voiced Allie Earp, brother Virgil’s widow  (Heather MacRae).  Josie is somehow connected to the movie industry and a movie is in production based on the story of the Earp brothers and the O.K. Corral.  Josie is haunted by her past in Tombstone and in particular is haunted by the death of Wyatt’s first common law wife Mattie; Allie is ready to forgive but not to forget.  The two women have convened to set the record straight for the filmmakers and for each other.  Who stole whose man, who was helpful to others, what were people’s true incentives in that time of bare bones survival in the wilderness?

Josie and Allie are sometimes haunted in musical duet and trio and quartet by their younger selves (a familiar technique, especially to those among us who appreciate Sondheim‘s Follies featuring reminiscing vaudeville girls).  The primarily flashback story of the younger women some 60 years before is evoked by nine women including Misheala Faucher as the young Josie, Stephanie Palumbo as young Allie, the drug-addicated Mattie Earp (Anastasia Barzee), and the enchanting non-Earp related free-spirited gal about town Kate Haroney, Doc Holllidays mistress (Ariela Morgenstern).  No one is actually married — the common law understanding of spousal relationships dictates the Mrs. moniker for all of the erstwhile prostitute Earp wives.  Only Josie hasn’t earned her living “on her back” as one character says.  Josie comes to town in a touring acting troupe and lures or distracts or entices or just replaces the first “Mrs.” Wyatt Earp.

A story inspired by a real young woman of some means who wanted something more of her life than to be a conventional wife and mother and housekeeper.  Our imagined musical historical gloss on her life represents that initial yearning with a great tune, “Nothing Like the Girls at Home”.  The imagined late life reckoning between Josie and Allie, two women who lived through a confusing and emotional time that has become part of American historical lore, could be a great context for a show.  Tunes and flashing petticoats and lyrics about yearning hopes and open spaces evoke a series of similarly themed American musicals.  But this show isn’t quite yet realized.  Hone it to the women and clarify the stakes.  Why is the resolution between Allie (the strongest of the young Earp “wives”) and Josie who left town after the shootout?  We seek the through line.  (And our gal Kate keeps stealing the show with tunes like “They Got Snakes Out Here”, warning young Josie of the characters ready to pounce on her trusting ways.)

The costumes by Ryan J. Moller are fun and varied.  The set by Ann Bartek is compact and evocative considering the tiny space in this performance venue.  Choreography by Joe Barros envisions a much larger space (big June Taylor moments, massive movements around the tiny space), yet the energy is appreciated and appropriate for the material.  The most nuanced performances are by Ariela Morgenstern (evoking Ava Gardner looks and demeanor circa Mogambo) and the riveting Heather MacRae. The lovely singing voice (yet limited emotional palate) of Mishaela Faucher interests, soothes, and leaves us wanting more.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 25, 2011)

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