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‘Cowgirls’ offers simple premise, great entertainment

The premise is more or less foolproof: Three classical musicians, the Coghill Trio, are booked into a country-western saloon under the mistaken impression that they are the Cowgirl Trio.

These three black-clad Beethovenites must get in touch with their inner Patsy Clines, and fast.

In the Interplayers’ tuneful production, this premise quite nicely lives up to its potential. By the end, the audience is stomping along to the “Orange Blossom Special” (or a variation on that theme) and singing along with the show’s theme song, “Cowgirls.”

Don’t expect anything unpredictable – the plot develops strictly according to formula. But under Reed McColm’s deft directing and Pamela Brownlee’s lively musical direction, “Cowgirls” provides a lot of good fun and a surprising amount of good music.

I say surprising, because this is not a jukebox musical or a collection of already-proven country hits. These songs are all original, written by Mary Murfitt. Her songs are always tuneful, always in touch with their country roots and usually funny (sample lyric, “Don’t call me trailer trash – I live in a mobile home”). Sometimes, they’re even touching, as in, “It’s Time to Come Home.”

And these songs are performed with endearing enthusiasm and skill by this talented troupe of actresses. The women in the trio – Janet Robel, Allison Morgan and Jennifer Jacobs – are all seasoned and trained musicians. They have to be, since they open the show with a fairly lengthy chunk of Beethoven’s “Pathetique.”

As the show goes on, they play bits of Tchaikovsky and Grieg as well. Then we hear their inept (at first) attempts to loosen up and get into a hoedown mood. All three demonstrate great comic instincts as they prove how bad country music can sound when performed stiffly, from sheet music.

One of the show’s best moments comes when saloon proprietor Jo, played by the excellent Janean Jorgensen, shows the trio how to put a little country in their music. They need to imagine they’re “sliding into a hot tub,” not dipping a toe into an icy stream, she says. She shows them how to let their feelings rule over the written score.

By the end, of course, each one of them proves to be country dynamite – Robel as a honky-tonk pianist, Morgan as a fiddler, and Jacobs as a singer and guitar player.

Meanwhile, the saloon workers get to demonstrate their considerable country chops as well. Liberty Rose plays Mickey, the big-haired waitress with dreams of stardom. She proves to be a raucous country chanteuse who is also adept on the banjo. She has a wonderful comic scene in which she proves she’s more “country” than the rest of them, based on her number of ex-husbands, number of children, and number of children in reform school.

Micah Hanson is totally lovable as Mo, the spunky barmaid who gets a lot of the good laugh lines. (Betsy Howie, who wrote the book, originated this role.) Hanson has some wonderful comic and musical moments playing, for instance, a cowbell still attached to a cow.

Yet it’s Jorgensen who really lets us know what great country singing can sound like. She has a fine voice, pure and pitch-perfect. She also has a Dolly Parton-esque knack for communicating the emotions beneath the lyrics.

There’s a subplot involving Jo’s long-lost country-singing mother, but don’t spend much energy trying to untangle it. Just enjoy the music.

The set design, by Maynard Villers, is a nice rendition of a country saloon, complete with weathered pine paneling and genuine beer taps. The costumes, by Janna Creswell, are appropriately fringed and spangled.

The finale puts the audience in the role of the crowd for the saloon’s big benefit concert.

In that spirit, director McColm has the actresses distribute popcorn to the audience.

Country music and popcorn – now that’s an all-American evening at the theater.

“Cowgirls” continues through Feb. 14. Call (509) 455-7529 for tickets.
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