Country clashes with classical in Horizon’s breezy ‘Cowgirls’

Horizon Theatre’s remount of its broad, high-concept comedy pays tribute to honky-tonk angels


  • BEETHOVEN’S FIFTH OF WHISKEY: Ladies laugh last in musical sendup.

If the stage musical Cowgirls came with a 1990s-era movie trailer, the description of the premise - this classical trio has just one day to learn country music! - would be followed by a record scratch. Cowgirls’ story might be about as formulaic as it gets, but Horizon Theatre’s production proves that the formula holds up.

Horizon already tested Cowgirls with a 1998 production that found enough popularity for a 1999 remount at the 14th Street Playhouse. For the theater’s 30th anniversary season, co-artistic directors Jeff and Lisa Adler nodded to Horizon’s past by reviving the show with original director Heidi Cline McKerley back at the helm. Nostalgia for Horizon’s history adds a little additional sweetness to the play’s love letter to female country singers.

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Moriah and Isabel Curley Clay’s gleaming, polished set depicts Hiram Hall, a Kansas country and western saloon with a storied musical history, but never allowed female performers onstage, for complicated reasons. Owner Jo Carlson (Christy Baggett) booked “The Cowgirl Trio” for the venue’s grand reopening and needs a hit weekend to get the bank off her back. Unfortunately, she misheard the act’s real name - “The Coghill Trio” - and never realized that they’re classical musicians.

The trio consists of scattered, hugely-pregnant Rita (Katherine Anderson), gay New Age enthusiast Lee (Paige Mattox) and snobby, buttoned-up Mary Lou (Pearl Rhein), the latter of whom most fiercely resists the idea that they switch their formal black performing attire for cowboy outfits. (If Cowgirls were an older movie, Mary Lou would be played by Shelley Long, and maybe Katherine Heigl today.) While it’s not surprising that a show built around such a broad hook would feature exaggerated performances, much of the acting feels a little too big for Horizon’s intimate space.

With music and lyrics by Mary Murfitt and the book by Betsy Howie, Cowgirls has fun with the contrast between musical forms, particularly when the trio finds classical antecedents to iconic country tunes, like Beethhoven’s “”Für Elise” and Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” The songs offer enjoyable larks on country music forms, like the comedic “Don’t Call Me Trailer Trash,” sung by aspiring singer/barmaid Mickey (Ally Duncan). Ironically, the more traditional Broadway-style ballad “Looking for a Miracle” packs more punch than most of the Grand Ole Opry fare.

As Jo reluctantly teaches the trio the ways of country music, Cowgirls flirts with the idea that classical musicians like violinist Mary Lou, and possibly classical music itself, is less passionate than more popular forms of contemporary music. Jo suggests that when Mary Lou cuts loose, she’ll prove particularly impressive, but the treatment of the “stuffy” character feels like an anti-intellectual cheap shot. Nevertheless, a serious scene between Jo and Mary Lou strives for more emotional truth than the play’s jokiness, with Baggett and Rhein emerging as the most charismatic musical performers.

Because the trio has to go through so many steps to get from Beethoven Sonata Pathetique to honky-tonk standards, Cowgirls’ pay-off brings a genuine sense of relief, as well as the show’s most joyous performances. When the final number playfully integrates classical and country melodies, with Mary Lou alternating between “violin” and “fiddle” flourishes, the show feels like it’s closed a circle, as well as providing a ringing endorsement of (cow)girl power.

Cowgirls. Through June 29. 8 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 3 and 8:30 p.m. Sat., 5 p.m. Sun. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. $25-45. 404-584-7450.