She Stoops to Banditry

There's nothing quite as delightful as watching a seasoned actor do what he was obviously born to do, and this is what happens when George Riddle performs "Heliotrope," a sweet pastiche song in which he woos a younger woman in vain. Well on in years (and experience), Riddle logged more than 5,000 performances in various roles in Off-Broadway's longest-running musical, The Fantasticks, and his confidence, skill, and joy are apparent in every twist, shuffle, and sidelong glance he throws at the audience. Here is the consummate professional, taking his time and using each word (and shrug) to maximum effect. Never mind that the song comes out of left field with little dramatic function to recommend it—in the hands of the seasoned Riddle, it sparkles with charm. Although his performance left me wishing I had a "repeat" button, it is, unfortunately, a diamond in the rough within an extremely roughhewn new musical, The Legend of Pearl Hart. Based on the true story of the last (and only female) stagecoach bandit, the action moves from 1893 to 1905 (and from Canada to Arizona) at a tiresome clip. In condensing Pearl's life, writers Rich Look (music) and Cathy Chamberlain (book and lyrics) skim over the surface of what could (and should) be a much more intriguing story. Any account of a woman with a gun will draw immediate comparisons to Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, and Look and Chamberlain do little to convincingly develop (and improve on) what that classic show created.

To say life turns on a dime in Pearl's world would be an understatement. Born in Ontario, she sees her fortunes evolve in quick, singular events. Cutting the high card from a deck lands her in a (troubled) marriage to Frederick "Black Jack" Hart and a move to Chicago. A lucky poker hand buys her a hotel in Arizona; a later, unlucky poker hand snatches it away. With such split-second jumps in the action, there's little dramatic build to the story's events and even less time for substantial character development. Even when Pearl decides to start robbing stagecoaches, we don't see the actual event; instead, we watch a crowd of people impassively watching the robbery from the sidelines.

Director Lea Orth's awkward, sometimes stagnant staging certainly doesn't help—actors often deliver lines straight out at the audience when they are meant to be communicated to actors standing far behind. And when Pearl's younger sister Lucy, an aspiring novelist, sells a play based on Pearl's life, the company launches into one of the most confusing sequences of stage movement I've ever seen. Characters haphazardly appear, disappear, and reappear, and while it looks as if they might be rehearsing for a play, it's impossible to decipher exactly what's going on. Eventually, they launch into a short retelling of Pearl's adventures, but it's like reading the Cliffs Notes of the Cliffs Notes—an abridged version of an already poorly abridged story.

Look's music tends toward a general country sound—what you might hear played on a piano at an old-fashioned saloon, perhaps—but it lacks a general cohesiveness, unless you count the prerecorded, overly synthesized accompaniment that gives every song a rather tinny sheen. The songs range from derivative contemporary musical theater (Pearl's solo "A Window Opens") to the twangy gems "Just a Cowboy" and "Buffalo's Gone"—full-fledged country ballads that showcase Keith Krutchkoff's buttery baritone to lovely effect. These songs do little to advance plot and character, however, functioning primarily as occasions to stop and sing.

The lyrics often further complicate matters. When Pearl arrives in Chicago, the company repeatedly welcomes her to "Shhhhhhhhhh—[pause]—cago," and my date had to lean over and ask me to clarify what they were saying.

Still, there are several effective numbers. Riddle, who plays bartender Joe, scores with the vaudevillian "Heliotrope" as well as with the trio number "What About Me?," sung by the men who long for Pearl's attention (including the fantastic Trip Plymale as Ed, the town drunk). And another diamond in the rough, Laurie Gamache (a veteran of the Broadway production of A Chorus Line), gives a strong performance in the fiery "New Girl in Town." As sometime saloon owner Kate, she is a vivid, confident presence, almost making us wish the show were more about her character instead.

As the title character, Catherine Hesse exudes plenty of heart but little of Pearl's pluck. That's not entirely her fault, however, as the simplistic material doesn't always give her much to work with. Michael Shane Ellis is appropriately villainous and shows off a lovely voice as Pearl's scoundrel of a husband, Jack, while the rich-voiced Krutchkoff comes off a bit stiff as Bill Truman, a cowboy star and ladies' man who falls hard for Pearl.

Is Pearl Hart's story worthy of dramatization? The creators would do well to delve deeper into the more exhilarating and provocative moments of Pearl's life rather than trying to include every minute detail. Perhaps then Pearl would comprise richer characteristics (both good and bad) that would make her more human and, as such, worth rooting for.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post