'Fannie Keegan' is a grand romp

The latest production at Oregon Stage Works is"Tales of Fannie Keenan, Better Known as Dora Hand."

And what a tale it is!

Fannie Keenan was the stage name of a well-brought-up Boston woman named Dora. Her beautiful operatic voice caught the eye of an enterprising impresario named Hand, who booked her for concerts all over Europe and the East Coast. Dora married him and quickly discovered she was trapped. She fled to the Wild West, a place where he couldn't trace her, took the name Fannie Keenan and struck out on an independent career as a saloon singer and madam, ending up in Dodge City, Kansas. There, she hobnobbed with the likes of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and rough and tumble cowboys at the end of dusty cattle drives.

Composer/Actor Mark Turnbull has been fascinated by this story for at least 30 years. An earlier version of the play was produced during Turnbull's stint at California's respected Laguna Playhouse. Turnbull ultimately refined the script with Laguna cohort Doug Rowe, now based in Ashland.

And so, directed by Doug Rowe, "Tales of Fannie Keenan" gets its real debut at Oregon Stage Works.

The story line is deceptively simple. Fannie is the performer and madam at the Dodge City saloon owned by one James "Hound Dog" Kelley, formerly a scout and dog handler for Gen. George Custer. She and Kelley are a couple but she refuses to marry him. Fannie keeps her work and real life separate. By day, she helps the poor and sick who have been brushed aside in the rowdy frontier town. She even sings in church.

Enter "Spike" Kennedy, the trigger-happy scion of a Texas cattle baron. He falls in love with Fannie, who is attracted to his youth and the fact that he is well educated and actually carries a volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Predictably, this becomes a tragic triangle.

Turnbull and Rowe have turned this into a grand romp with an unexpected courtroom drama ending. Turnbull's score and lyrics are quite fine, with inspiration as diverse as Sondheim, folk music, the classic American musical and a bit of Bertholdt Brecht. The script is intelligent and funny and a bit profound.

Accomplished cabaret performer Sarah Jane Nelson plays Fannie with verve and sass and tender wisdom. Author Mark Turnbull plays "Hound Dog" Kelley, who makes the dog-keeper turned saloon owner a commanding figure. Turnbull is sexy even when howling like one of his hounds. SOU student James David Larson plays "Spike" Kennedy and it is a treat to watch him grow into the role as the show progresses.

The supporting cast is stellar. Fannie's "sidekick" Sylvi is played by Tamara Marston (who is also the show's musical director). Marston's voice and acting ability have been a welcome staple in Ashland for many years. Geoffrey Riley plays a dual role — the town's preacher and Gen. George Custer. The scene where Riley's Custer tries to persuade Kelley to join him for the battle of Little Big Horn is absolutely delicious.

Custer sees Bighorn as a stepping-stone to a career in politics, or as Fannie puts it, "Bighorn was a fundraiser that backfired."

Jon Stadelman nearly steals the second act as a brash lawyer right out of "Chicago." The rest of the cast, too numerous to name, is stellar as well.

The technical credits here are outstanding. The vocal/piano arrangements were done by Terence Alaric Levitt, with Aaron Blenkush as the onstage saloon pianist. Wendy Spurgeon did the dancehall choreography. The brash set design is by Doug Ham, with effective lighting by Phil Shaw. The "Wild West" costumes are by Donna Klein.

In short, "Tales of Fannie Keenan, Better Known as Dora Hand" is delightful. Bravo to Oregon Stage Works for taking the chance on this one. Now, let's support Fannie, Peter Alzado and OSW.

"Fannie Keenan" plays at Oregon Stage Works through Sept. 29. For more information, call 482-2334.

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