So these three gals walk into a bar, right? Only these gals are some kinda chamber music group called the Coghill Trio, and they’ve been booked for this honky-tonk’s grand reopening because of a wacky misunderstanding that they’re a country band called the Cowgirl Trio. So these uptight New England ladies have to learn to be country real quick-like in order to save the bar from being taken over by the bank, because they’re apparently the only musicians currently anywhere near Kansas. Or something. Maybe it’s because the ol’ country-singing bar owner sees something deep inside each and every one of those gals just dying to get out. Something with heart. Something like … a cowgirl.
If you think this premise sounds like pure musical-comedy gold, you’re not half wrong. You’re much more wrong than that. Cowgirls is plagued by the kind of jokes and mugging you’d find in an average sitcom, only broader, with lots of flailing arms and homespun wisdom such as “What is it about mamas? They leave a big hole when they go.” The flimsy script is just there to set up the musical numbers, which would be all right if the songs were any good. The best of the country tunes are just okay, and the sentimental numbers make you want to hang some chicken wire in front of the stage, just to be on the safe side.
Swaggering across Andrea Bechert’s beautifully detailed cowboy-bar set is Rhonda Coullet as Jo Carlson, the down-home saloon owner whose mama the country singer ran out on her, and whose daddy (who left her the bar) didn’t let any gal singers play there for the last 45 years. “Can she sing?!” one of the waitresses exclaims during the obligatory expository dialogue. Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no. Although Coullet boasts a bunch of musical credits, at the performance I attended her voice was shot, whether she’d lost it long ago or the night before. Numbers intended to be roof-raisers fell flat.
Some of the musical jokes are cute, although rarely quite so cute as they think they are, and the trio’s harmonies are actually quite good. Amy Meyers delivers the most solid performance as Lee, the optimistic New Age lesbian cellist, and manages to sell the folk-flavored “Don’t Look Down” as the only ballad in the piece that isn’t actually painful to hear. Coauthor and songwriter Mary Murfitt plays Mary Lou the violinist, the most tightly wound of all — and perhaps, just perhaps, the one with the most heart — and her fiddle solo at the end would prove an excellent payoff had the debt by that point not already grown too great. As Rita, the pregnant worrywart with a loutish husband back home, Diana Torres Koss acquits herself well on the honky-tonk piano solos but seems to have trouble in the full-band numbers. Rounding out the cast are two waitresses halfheartedly angling for their big break: Janet Dickinson, just broad enough as Mickey, the big-haired trailer-park tramp; and Amy Jordan as Mo, who’s either supposed to be twelve years old or “simple” — it isn’t entirely clear.
The show does seem to inspire loyalty, as everyone in this Center REP production has served time in the show before. Director Eleanor Reissa also helmed its Off-Broadway debut eight years ago as well as its Marin Theatre Company run in 1999. Murfitt conceived and co-wrote the thing and was in the original production along with Coullet and Jordan; Meyers and Torres Koss are from the Marin show; and Dickinson and Jordan were in the national touring production. It’s reassuring in a way, because it implies that there are only so many mamas out there who let their babies grow up to be Cowgirls.