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When music director Mary Ehlinger says she loves the sassy, countryfied musical "Cowgirls" which plays Friday, March 25, through April 9 at Pioneer Theatre Company she's got the chops to underscore that professed devotion.
Just how much does she love the show? This production marks Ehlinger's 16th return to the musical for which she created the role of Rita, a classically trained pianist, during its original off-Broadway debut 20 years ago. And it's the second time she's worked on "Cowgirls" with director Karen Azenberg, after a 2010 production they helmed at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
"There are not many shows that involve just women, and women who are friends and who support each other, and I really like that," Ehlinger says.
Adds Azenberg: "I love that it's a show about women, created by women."
Despite its all-female cast, the show is far from a feminist power piece, they stress. Instead, it's a frothy comedy that invites theatergoers to connect with a real journey underneath its "joyous slapstick hoedown," as the New York Times termed the show in a 1996 review.
Ehlinger, a musician and actor, was pregnant back when "Cowgirls" progressed from readings and workshops to that debut off-Broadway run. She thought Betsy Howie and Mary Murfitt, who wrote the book and the music and performed in the show, would just recast the part of Rita.
The character is a member of the classical Coghill Trio, who mistakenly books the group for a country gig aimed to save a down-on-its-luck Hiram Hall. Jo, the saloon's owner, thinks she has booked the Cowgirl Trio.
Murfitt and Howie kept Ehlinger in the cast, incorporating the performer's pregnancy and piano training into the character's story. "It's almost as if doing the show reflected my own life," Ehlinger says. "We were developing friendships and discovering what we could do."
And, perhaps, discovering more about their roots in flyover country Murfitt is from Kansas, while Ehlinger is from Wisconsin and embracing their own musical snobbery.
County, classical: There's joy in performing the music, whatever form it takes, Ehlinger says. That's one of the deeper layers to the comedy that "wrings every last drop of tipsy moonshine humor from its crossbreeding of classical and country," according to Stephen Holden's 1996 New York Times review.
Ehlinger says one number that underscores that musical crossbreeding is "Love's Sorrow" at the end of the second act, where the characters sing original lyrics to a famed piece by Austrian-born composer/violinist Fritz Kreisler. Then the song segues into "Looking for a Miracle," which offers each character her own sung monologue.
Ehlinger was eager to reprise the show with Azenberg, who she says brings a fresh eye to the material. Azenberg, a choreographer who is also the theater company's artistic director, added more movement to make the show better fill Pioneer's large stage.
It's not the easiest show to cast, Ehlinger and Azenberg say, because it requires six female actors who can sing and credibly perform classical and country tunes on one or two instruments.
During the musical's original months-long run in New York City, everyone from violinist Itzhak Perlman to Dolly Parton saw the show. Parton said she would jump at the chance to play any of the parts, Ehlinger recalls with a laugh.
Nightly during that run, as an understudy actor/musician Leenya Rideout would call in at 7:30 to see if she would be performing. She most often went on as Mary Lou, a nerdy violinist, or Lee, a lesbian New-Agey cellist.
Twenty years later, Rideout is returning to the music of "Cowgirls" and to working with Ehlinger. For the Pioneer production, Rideout is playing Jo, the saloon owner who offers the classical musicians a short course in country attitude.
Rideout comes by that attitude naturally, after being born in Montana and growing up and attending school in Colorado. She went on to build an impressive acting résumé in New York City. Notably, she played Jenny in John Doyle's breakout, influential 2006 Broadway revival of "Company," which reinvigorated the stripped-down "actors performing as musicians" concept.
In her New York PTC audition of Pioneer's "Cowgirls," Rideout performed Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman," but didn't consider aiming for the part of Jo, who is a pianist. Rideout is a classically trained violinist and singer who also plays guitar and upright bass, and performs as a singer-songwriter as well as in The Chalks, a country-western sister trio. And, she notes with a laugh, she's recently been working on her "remedial piano skills."
"She's one of those crazy, gorgeous Broadway singer-dancers who also happens to play 82 instruments like a professional alright, maybe six," jokes Azenberg of Rideout.
After New York auditions failed to find the right violinist/actor, Utah-based Angela Chatelain Avila was cast as Mary Lou. "My first thought, when I got this role, was at least all those years of Suzuki won't go to waste," says Avila, a graduate of Skyline High School, who plays violin and mandolin in "Cowgirls."
She started 8 ½ years of Suzuki training at age 5. The violin wasn't her choice, she says. Instead, since her older siblings played viola and cello, her father assigned her the instrument, as the family needed a soprano instrumental voice to add to their orchestra.
After high school, Avila studied briefly at Weber State University, then worked for five years as a dancer and singer in Broadway and pop musical review shows on Royal Caribbean cruises. After returning to Utah, she has performed in the concert staging of Pioneer's "Rocky Horror Show," in "Elf" and "Sweet Charity," and in "Saturday's Voyeur" at Salt Lake Acting Company, as well as in West Valley and Orem Hale theater shows.
The actors were advised to learn the music first, so performing musical numbers would be drawn from muscle memory, Avila says.
She loves performing Mary Lou's breakout number in the second act, "Saddle Tramp Blues," where the character embraces what it means to blaze your own trail. "It's the first time my character isn't just stuck in the mud and angry," Avila says. "She actually gets to relax and smile during the song, which is fun."
The number was originally written for a guitar. For this production, the orchestrations were changed so that the violinist sings and dances but doesn't have to fake playing the guitar.
"If you hate country music, you will love this show," says Rideout, of the musical she terms "a comedy with heart" that everybody can relate to. "If you love classical music, you will love this show."
Pioneer Theatre lassos 'Cowgirls'
The 1996 all-female comedy musical (written by Betsy Howie and Mary Murfitt) crossbreeds classical and country tunes in a Pioneer Theatre Company revival.
Cast • The cast features Leenya Rideout (who was an understudy in the original off-Broadway run) and Utah-based Angela Chatelain Avila, as well as Lindsay Zaroogian, Jessica Bradish, Karis Danish and Ashlie Roberson. All play their own instruments in the show.
When • Friday, March 25, through Saturday, April 9: Mondays to Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturday matinees, 2 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $40-$62; $5 more day of the show; K-12 students half-price Monday and Tuesday; 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org