The Legend of Pearl Hart
It’s a pretty neat (cowboy) hat trick that those involved with the musical The Legend Of Pearl Hart manage to make the real-life wild west female bandit Pearl such a sympathetic character. Having done a little research, I’ve found that details and facts recorded in various historical accounts often contradict each other. And a lot has always been fuzzy. That’s why they call it a "legend!"
The creators here have taken advantage of the question marks and their own artistic license and added to the layers of mystique and fame. They’ve left out some aspects that would present their heroine as less endearing. And it’s much easier to like Pearl when we don’t witness or (even hear about) moments that would create empathy for her victims: we don’t really have a chance to connect with the frightened, innocent people she robbed on a stagecoach in the crime that was her most "celebrated". If and when it’s indicated that she had prostitution and other escapades on her resume, she’s the one being manipulated or lacking options. We don’t see her interactions, during which she had someone else (allegedly?) hit them over the head and take their money. We aren’t told much about her upbringing and its material advantages; we’re led to believe she was just desperate. And what of her decisions to pass off her children to her mother rather than raise them? We’re encouraged to cheer when, at trial, Pearl claims that she shouldn’t be punished by the law. Why? Because people of her gender couldn’t vote and didn’t create or approve the laws of the land. Do we really think that if women voted in the 1800s, they wouldn’t want confessed criminals to be punished? Are being famous (or infamous) due to the rarity of being a female thief, and its accompanying media blitz, bandit so "glamorous" that we should just say, "Aw, shucks?" Musical comedy can only be so persuasive.
That being said, there’s some admirable work being done in the small, no-frills playing space at the TBG Arts Center. Lea Orth’s direction keeps things flowing from scene to scene, but focus shifts and it’s not consistently compelling. It’s an uneven and sometimes frustrating production that has dry spells alternating with episodes of delight. Some songs suffer from sloppy rhyming and have energy but not much meat on their bones. On the other hand, there are several that are quite splendid. Heliotrope and Buffalo’s Gone are very strong entries and fully satisfying. A lovely ballad early on, Paper Heart, is a little gem. (But why after singing how much she appreciates this paper heart love note/valentine, does Pearl walk off not clutching it but leaving it with her sister as she packs to leave town with the man who proffered it?) A few lively group numbers add spirit but not much substantial development or insight. But all show potential and Rich Look (music) and Cathy Chamberlain (lyrics and book), who don’t have a long history of theater scores, deserve encouragement. Dance numbers as choreographed by Jim Orsono have some good ideas, especially the cute Polka Dot Polka and the audience-pleasing Cowgirl Can-Can. Some requisite cowboy-style trademarks are mixed into the music, and the writers and singers are quick on the draw to employ them. A little may go a long way, but it’s appropriate and enjoyable, especially to this reviewer who has a soft spot for such things.
The writers have found subject matter and events other than robbery to focus on and the public’s fascination with a female gun-toting thief is presented. The musical accompaniment is pre-recorded, and that’s its own kind of crime. This decision always makes live theater less live, but the very musical singers handle it with aplomb.. .
As the title character, Catherine Hesse is feisty, noble and does manage to make us see some struggle and thought behind her actions. She carries a lot of her shoulders and her energy does not flag. Michael Shane Ellis has the challenging role of Pearl’s harsh and brooding husband, a role more confining that the jail that can’t seem to hold Pearl for long. He’s more successful when he’s playing his character being challenged or sad than the earlier need to be powerful and irresistible. Laurie Gamache is very strong as Kate and energizes her scenes with plenty of stage presence. Keith Krutchkoff finds his own heroism and vulnerability as the sheriff torn between his duty and his affection for Pearl. But much of the pleasure comes from the rewarding, well-played and shrewd characterizations of Trip Plymale as Ed, the town drunk and George Riddle as the comically grizzled seen-it-all Joe Boot. These three men combine voices and energies spectacularly in the song highlight, What About Me?
Still, the musical seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. Does it want to make a comment on the fascination with crime? Cause us to understand that desperate people do desperate things, victims of their circumstances? Explore the art of seduction and the ends justifying the means? Or just strive for a rip-roaring good time? Perhaps some of each. And it succeeds a bit in each area without ever achieving one of these goals fully. Like the characters in the play’s key card-playing scenes, in which big chances are taken and fates are decided, gambles are taken but don’t always pay off and they don’t always show their hand. But you can’t but help respect them for daring.
Playing through June 24 at TBG Arts Center, 312 West 36 St. Tix are $18 (not highway robbery by any means) at SmartTix.com. Equity Showcase.