By KATHIE ISAAC-LUKE

For The Union Democrat

“Cowgirls the Musical,” which runs through May 8 at Stage 3 Theatre in Sonora, is an energetic and funny musical romp performed by a cast of six multi-talented women. Written by Betsy Howie, with music and lyrics by Mary Murfitt, the production first played off-broadway in 1996.

As the play opens, Jo has only 24 hours to save her father’s faded saloon, Hiram Hall, from foreclosure. In order to raise some cash, she has booked what she believed to be a cowgirl trio to provide a rousing performance. But, due to a misunderstanding, she has actually booked a trio of classically trained musicians known as The Coghill Trio.

Appraising the prim and proper musicians, Jo is determined that they leave the premises as soon as possible. But the three women, Rita, Lee and Mary Lou, have other ideas. To add to the confusion, Micky, the saloon’s waitress and Mo, the cashier, think they are better suited to perform for the important event.

Not wanting to give up their gig, the intrepid classical trio determines to adapt their music to the country and western scene and prove themselves to the skeptical Jo. Many comical moments ensue as the women strive to find their inner country.

Jo, the gritty and aloof business woman, is adeptly played by Holly Johnston. When she thoughtfully sings the plaintive “Songs My Momma Sang,” she offers a glimpse of the background which has contributed to her reserve. In addition to singing and playing three musical instruments, Johnston also gets a chance to show off her considerable juggling skills.

Shelly Bort plays Rita, the very pregnant pianist and leader of the classical trio. Bort, who also is the musical director for this production, has impressive credits as a singer and musician. Her performance is confident and charismatic, and she is quite convincing as a woman approaching motherhood who is afraid her life and career are about to become more circumscribed.

Lee, the cellist who dispenses new age wisdom, is winningly played by Leilani Villamor. She has a lovely singing voice and multiple theater credits.

Rounding out the trio is Sarah Spenker in a delightful performance as the prudish violinist, Mary Lou. Spenker has studied violin and percussion for many years, and her violin solos provide some of the play’s many highlights.

Also making her Stage 3 debut, MacKenzie Hamilton gives an energetic portrayal of Micky, the waitress with higher aspirations.

Sonora native Hanna Lundgren gives an appealing and endearing performance as the shy but enterprising Mo.

Director Rocky Rhoades ensures that the pace of this production moves along quickly, and keeps the humor flowing. Through their songs and interactions the audience gradually learns some of the backstories of the characters. The music is uniformly good, and all of the women have the opportunity to showcase their impressive voices and musical skills.

The play provides an exploration of the dynamic relationships between the women as they begin to bond in pursuing their common goal. In the second act the play picks up momentum as the characters begin to shed their inhibitions. Particularly funny is violinist Mary Lou’s transformation from uptight worrywart to enthusiastic go-getter.

With the buoyant musical number, “Honky Tonk Girl,” Rita confesses that she has long harbored a secret desire to sing in a honky-tonk style. Lee reveals how she has struggled to fit in and, in the beautiful, “Don’t Look Down,” sings a moving tribute to her grandmother. Micky and Mo get a chance to show off their talents in “Don’t Call Me Trailer Trash.” And, in “Saddle Tramp Blues,” Mo really comes into her own.

When Jo leads the company in “It’s Time to Come Home,” it is clear that the characters have coalesced as a group and achieved a blending of country and classical music that is both unique and pleasing. On the play’s opening night, there were a few minor glitches with the sound, which I’m sure will be remedied by the cast and crew in future performances.

“Cowgirls the Musical” is a spirited, entertaining production which delivers a fun time at the theater. There were times when the audience couldn’t resist joining in and adding some toe tapping and knee slapping to the lively proceedings. The play runs through May 8 at 208 S. Green St. in downtown Sonora. For tickets, visit stage3.org or call (209) 536-1778.

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