A scene from the Oregon Stage Works production of 'Tales of Fannie Keenan.'

The closing of the West; an opening of the heart

The musical "Tales of Fannie Keenan Better Known as Dora Hand" at one time was cooling its cowboy-booted heels in Mark Turnbull's sock drawer. It once had a reading at the Laguna Playhouse in California, and partial readings at a theater festival held in connection with the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

After a long, tortuous path, it finally has a brio-filled production at Oregon Stage Works.

"Dora Hand" is awash in song, much of it rousing, some of it comprising Sondheim-like pastiche, full of internal rhyme, and very clever stuff indeed. Singers introduce themes, underscore the action, finish each others' lines.

Doug Rowe, who collaborated with Turnbull on the book, directs. Tamara Marston was musical director, Terence Alaric Levitt did the arrangements, Aaron Blenkush is the musical accompanist, and Wendy Spurgeon choreographed.

The play is based on a true story. Hand, who was originally from St. Louis, was a singer of some renown who in the 1870s headed west and wound up in a saloon in Dodge City, where she called herself Fannie Keenan. There she hobnobbed with Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Mayor James "Dog" Kelley. All of the above turn up as characters in the play, along with James "Spike" Kennedy, the lettered son of a big Texas rancher.

Dora (Sarah Jane Nelson), Dog (Turnbull) and Spike (James David Larson) form a romantic triangle. Rough-spun Dog wants Dora to marry him as the action begins, and the only slightly smoother Spike becomes smitten with her soon enough.

In her Fannie role, Dora is a madam and saloon gal by night, despised by self-righteous townspeople who call her slut. But in her daytime incarnation, Dora devotes herself to good works, helping the children, the poor, the lame and the halt. Both Dog and Spike consistently misread her, thinking Eros when she has higher things in mind.

"There's something I want you to do for me," she coos to Spike from her bed. "I need it. Now."

She wants him to read Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on the over-soul.

At one point she even suggests a sex strike, a la Lysistrata.

There's not much of a linear plot here to follow. Boisterous cowboys cavort with saloon gals, including Sylvi (Marston) and the FairyBelles (Mia Charomonte and Juliana Wheeler) who just happen to harmonize like angels. Spike shows a love of guns that immediately calls to mind Chekhov's law that if you show a shotgun in the first act, well, you know the rest.

Dora drops effortless bons mots. Ruminating on the lack of paintings on the walls, she gazes out the window and says, "Still life with endless prairie."

Gen. George Armstrong Custer (Geoffrey Riley) shows up, and he and Dog howl like old dogs and run through a series of secret handshakes and hugs and fraternal folderol, and Dog lets fly some of the neo-Shakespearean speech Turnbull is occasionally capable of:

"Ah y varmit! Ya Coot! Ya howl! Oh ya great picture painting of chivalry. Idealism ignited, oh proud and truth laden Golden one. So how ya doin', ya son of a bitch?!"

Custer and Dog have a hilarious duet on getting old.

Custer represents the masculine principle taken to a ludicrous extreme, as well as the military and financial forces that in the decade after the Civil War were already taking the wild out of the Wild West. He wants to enlist Dog in a little touch of warfare, good ol' boy-style, a massacre of Indians. Which ones? "The ones with feathers."

But Dog has kinda lost his stomach for massacres.

"Little Big Horn was a fundraiser that backfired," Dora quips.

In the second act this sprawling Western/musical morphs into a courtroom drama. To reveal the reason for the trial would be a spoiler, but Dog wants vengeance, Spike wants his dignity back, and there's a ghost that's visible to the audience but to only one character on the stage. John Stadelman as Barkey, a New York lawyer, almost steals it. In the end there is a epiphany, and an opening of heart.

"Tales" is a brainy musical romp full of provocative themes: male hubris, the rather Shakespearean dichotomy between persona and inner character, the classic West giving way to a counter-classic replacement, the opening of the heart. All this strengthens, rather than gets in the way of, a lot of smart, musical fun. It is probably the best darkly comic, somewhat tragic, musical Western you'll see all season, and that's saying something.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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