The 2012 Ice Factory Festival closes with The Girl of the Golden West, a heartfelt musical ode to the great American myth based on David Belasco’s 1911 novel, which had previously inspired Puccini to write his most experimental opera, La Fanciulla del West. In its own way, Rady&Bloom’s production of The Girl of the Golden West is just as lush as Puccini; the music is gorgeously melodic, sweeping and glorious. Days after seeing the play, I’m still singing, “Oh my mountains, my beautiful peaks. My Sierras, lonely?”
This is a line lifted straight from the novel by writer/director Jeremy Bloom, who makes great use of Belasco’s ardent and charmingly antiquated language, “Well, that’s the cheese! You’ve struck it!” Belasco, who was a major theater producer, was born in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and he writes about the West lovingly, peopling the book with rough but good-hearted characters named Handsome Charlie and The Sydney Duck.
It’s the stuff of American myths: In the small gold mining town of Cloudy Mountain, there’s only one girl. She packs a pistol and runs a saloon, but she has yet to give her first kiss. When she meets a dashing stranger on the road home after her first trip to the big city, it’s love at first sight. But it turns out that he’s Ramerrez (Tom Hennes), a notorious bandit who is actually a hidalgo who has promised his dying father that he will “make these Americans suffer for their seizure of this, our rightful land.”
Ramerrez’s father is played by Starr Kwofie, who happens to be an African-American woman. She also easily slides into the part of Sheriff Jack Rance, somehow managing to be both pitiable and menacing as a man who is desperately in love with the Girl although he has a wife in New Orleans. The gender bending fun in the play continues with Brian Rady, who rides sidesaddle on a sawhorse with a glittery paper fan as the jealous Mexican spitfire Nina Micheltorina. He also designed the simple set and plays the sentimental saloon hire Nick who has the “cordialness of a great dane.”
It’s unique that the embodiment of rugged American individualism in Belasco’s novel isn’t the misunderstood desperado or the lovelorn sheriff, it’s a free-spirited young girl who loves the mountains. Catherine Brookman plays the role with a simple and sincere open-heartedness that makes it easy to understand why the entire town would adore her. She’s also gorgeous and ridiculously talented; much of the music was written by her, including that song about the mountains that I’m still singing.
The play isn’t without flaws. In the Ohio Theatre’s small space, a few scenes that were juxtaposed concurrently were chaotic and muddled. And the pace of action takes a sharp nosedive with the long love scenes in the middle of the play. “Time stands still in the snow,” the Girl says and it certainly plodded in a rather interminable way while she and Ramerrez pondered whether they should go up to her cabin and then talked about the unexpected snowstorm, her heirloom clock, her single bed, and Dante’s love for Beatrice, before launching into song, “The snowʼs fallin’ on the mountain tonight. And you and me, we need to be alone.”
But despite these weaknesses, The Girl of the Golden West is both highly enjoyable and innovative. The three musicians onstage (Ellen O’Meara, Lucas Segall and Joe White) play a variety of instruments, including glockenspiel, banjo and flute. Several songs are looped with a digital sampler and one song called to mind the way native people sing in a circle.
Mention should be made of the impressive lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew that beautifully lit up the giant paint-by-numbers craggy mountain, which evoked both the homespun roughness of the characters and the love of the land that is so quintessentially American. “This ain’t the promise land,” Ramerrez threatens in the play, “This is no-man’s-land.” But in The Girl of the Golden West, no-man’s-land is actually soul-stirring and inspiring.
photos by Shelly Rodriguez and Robert Lavenstein
The Girl of the Golden West
Rady&Bloom at The New Ohio Theatre (part of the 2012 Ice Factory Festival)
scheduled to end on August 4, 2012
for tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit http://www.NewOhioTheatre.org