I Married Wyatt Earp
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 25, 2011
For me, nothing is more disappointing than seeing a new show that has a fantastic premise and then fails to live up to it. This is the case with I Married Wyatt Earp, a new musical by Thomas Edward West (book), Sheilah Rae (book and lyrics), and Michele Brourman (music), directed by Cara Reichel and presented by Prospect Theatre Company and New York Theatre Barn at 59e59's Americas Off Broadway festival.
The premise is this: to tell the story of the showdown at the O.K. Corral—where Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and Doc Holliday faced down the notorious Clanton Gang—from the perspective of the women involved. Only the women: I Married Wyatt Earp features eleven actresses in its cast (no men) and is narrated by Josie and Allie Earp, widows of Wyatt and Virgil respectively, 60 years after the iconic events took place. I love this idea, and was excited to see what interesting point(s) of view might be explored. Are the women survivors, or victims, or the powers behind the throne? One description of Josie Earp that I found in my internet research compared her to Helen of Troy (I'll explain why in a minute): that's interesting. But the creators of I Married Wyatt Earp never take advantage of their concept to tell this quintessential cowboy story in a new, feminine/feminist light.
Let me digress to share some of the main plot points with you. Josie Marcus is the rebellious daughter of a well-to-do Jewish family living in San Francisco in the late 1870s. She is romanced by the much-older, married, possibly corrupt Johnny Behan, and manages to shortly make her way to Tombstone, Arizona, where he is the sheriff. (She accomplishes this by joining an all-woman Gilbert & Sullivan troupe.) In Tombstone, Josie meets and falls in love with Wyatt Earp, whose common-law wife Mattie is addicted to laudanum and losing her grip on her man and her sanity. Johnny's jealousy over Josie's relationship with Wyatt may or may not be the ultimate cause of the shoot-out that famously ensues (which is where the Helen of Troy comparison comes in).
The musical follows Josie and the Earp women—Mattie; Allie, who is Virgil's wife; Bess, who is brother James's wife; and Hallie, Bess and James's teenage daughter—through the drama of this story of the Old West. Also figuring in the tale is the Hungarian beauty Kate Haroney, who is Doc Holliday's maltreated mistress, along with Pauline Rackham, head of the already-mentioned theatrical troupe. Older versions of Josie and Allie take turns narrating—although there is one problematic place in Act Two where they seem to be watching, along with the audience, a scene from the past that neither of them took part in. I was never sure whether I was supposed to be rooting for Josie, whose independence and passion feel like they're supposed to be admirable (though they are barely elucidated in the song given over to explaining them, the woefully generic "Room to Breathe"), or for Allie, the gutsy survivor who ended up being married to the wrong (i.e., less long-lived and less publicity-minded) Earp brother.
I wanted to root for all of these women, but the mishmash of contemporary theatre/song styles and the lack of a compelling point of view kept me from ever be able to do so. Reichel's staging doesn't help matters: the orchestra occupies most of the stage space, pushing the action to the apron or to an area in front of the stage where chairs and tables are constantly being rearranged between scenes. Pacing overall feels sluggish. Musical numbers incidental to the action—a very long sequence introducing Rackham's troupe, two long songs for Kate—interrupt and pull us away from the main story line.
Heather MacRae is terrific as always as the older Allie Earp. Unfortunately, few in the cast match her: Stephanie Palumbo as the younger Allie and Carol Linnea Johnson as Bess offer assured performances, while Carolyn Mignini as the older Josie seems both too young and too sophisticated (in a jarringly inappropriate tailored pantsuit) to convince us that she's the 80-year-old widow of a famous Wild West figure.
I think there's at least one great musical that can be made out of this terrific material. But I Married Wyatt Earp, sadly, isn't it.