By MIKE DUNHAM
Three things immediately came to mind at the first ever performance of “Gold Rush Girls” at Cyrano’s on July 27.
One: The new musical by Karmo and Jerry Sanders, “inspired by Lael Morgan’s classic history ‘Good Time Girls’,” has as much in common with Morgan’s book as “The Lion King” has with Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”
Two: It is a melodrama — a point driven home by the hissing from some members of the audience that began to accompany the villain’s entrances as the play unfolded — but it’s a pretty good melodrama, sort of like a month of soap opera episodes crammed into three hours, but with better music.
Three: Spirited performers elevated the material to something more entertaining than the text alone would suggest.
Taking these impressions one by one:
Morgan’s book about prostitution in the gold rush holds a faithful mirror up to several fascinating, sometimes fun, often tragic characters — but always real women. The sex trade business of the era is frankly reported. The musical makes references to “the cribs” and the word “whore” is employed, but whether or not the women of the Paradise Saloon, in which the action is set, are presently engaged in such activity themselves is skirted.
Also skirted is what makes these women tick. The personalities in the first scene are, basically, unchanged by the end. By the finale, only one character, the opportunistic, grasping Lily, may have had an encounter with awareness that will change her life. But that’s not clear, either.
The plot involves a saloon proprietress who has fled to the north country to escape a violent relationship in New Orleans in the company of her business partner, a black piano player. They strike it rich by selling hootch and female companionship of some kind to miners. The bad man from New Orleans tracks them down, appropriates their shipment of whiskey, threatens and assaults them and takes over the saloon by getting hold of what seems to be the only gun in Dawson. Oh my. How will they get out of this jam?
At least the authors didn’t resort to calling for a Mountie to resolve the problems, but the resolution was nonetheless as improbable as the implied dearth of firearms in the Klondike. The central conflict — a man’s compulsion to possess a woman and her resistance to him — is compelling and, when it was the center issue on stage, one felt the dramatic temperature rise every time. Comic, romantic and supernatural diversions were much less persuasive.
The music followed familiar forms, nicely in many cases. The tango beat in scenes of clashes was a good fit. The villain’s narrative, “I Remember,” successfully revealed both his nostalgic and vengeful nature. Two big ensemble numbers were well-wrought; “Don’t Be Afraid,” with the girls trying to comfort each other while the miners read tear-jerking letters from home, and the beautiful Act II opener, “Invisible Soul.”
Pianist Dan McElrath provided all accompaniment, managing to maintain energy without ever overpowering the small space. And it was music that, by and large, sustained the pulse of the show. Several good voices were in the cast, with good pitch and clear diction.
Katie Strock, as the lead character, Eudora, was particularly willing to belt it out. Her singing conveyed a humanity that was not always apparent from the script. The other saloon girls, Regina MacDonald as Lily and Ali de Guzman as Rose, also turned in strong vocal acting. The biggest voice, Christina Gagnon, had more ethereal music, as befitted her role as the ghost of a Tlingit woman, Kanoontuk, with long notes that were essential in anchoring the “Invisible Soul” number.
Ed Bourgeois (who also directed the show) made a fabulous cad, smarmy, presumptuous and violent by turns. Smooth tenor Alex Pierce, as Ike the piano player, conveyed an inner smoldering restrained by calm intelligence; but in leading “Ton of Gold,” another big ensemble, sold the song like a veteran vaudevillian.
Like the leads, the supporting cast hurled themselves into the often tricky music and even the clunky dialogue with great spirit. When the development, such as it was, dragged, they remained delightful to watch. But there were two curious exceptions; John Fraser (Captain) and Leo Grinberg (Schoolboy) seemed far paler than they have in recent roles where they stopped the show — Grinberg in “Rent” or Fraser in “Caroline,” for instance. That could be due to the material they had to work with, in which case there’s a simple solution — get rid of it.
“Gold Rush Girls” is fun, musically entertaining and probably suitable for all ages. Visitors seeking a taste of theatrical Alaskana should certainly consider taking it in. But the show would benefit from being cut by about one quarter of the material, even if it required heavy reworking of the remaining portions.
I’d start with the romantic, comic and supernatural diversions.
“Gold Rush Girls” will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 2 at Cyrano’s, 413 D St. General admission is $22.75. A display of photos of gold rush era women is on display in the lobby. Lael Morgan will be on hand at the display from 5 p.m. to showtime on Aug. 3 and host “Sunday Sojourns” after performances on Aug. 5, 19 and Sept. 2.