The Tent at Fringe is pretty small, except when it’s Madison Square Garden. That was the thundering scale of things on Saturday night as the first performance of Jilly Manilly got under way. Cue the sound of crowds cheering, pull up the kaleidoscopic party lights, and get ready to dance to some epic hip-hop anthems.
Also, enjoy the gyrations of two faceless men dressed in zebra-pattern body suits.
The first 20 minutes of Jilly Manilly are pure spectacle. And the songs are icing on the pop-rock cake — they’re cohesive, catchy, and well-sung. Not too surprising given that the three main actresses in the show are the members of the up-and-coming local hip-hop group Main Girl.
So, the trio can act as well as sing? Well, maybe don’t think of it that way. Judging by the fact that the show was produced by a record label and features 11 full-length songs that, while thematically tied in, serve no active plot purpose, you wouldn’t be far off the mark to assume that Jilly Manilly, while well-intentioned and sometimes fun, is more like viral promotion for Main Girl than a meaningful act of theatre.
Which would be fine, except people need to sit through the theatre part.
The first 20 minutes of the show — and it does take that long for the actual story to kick in — are fun, loud, and over-the-top. Then, as the first scene at Madison Square Garden ends, we all come down the proverbial hill together to watch the three members of Main Girl (Shabreia Womack, Demetria Miller, and Jahna Reed) talk through a series of clumsily-scripted scenes among supporting characters who, often, perform across an irreconcilable range of acting styles. Some of it is wooden, some overwrought. Womack, Miller, and Reed fare pretty well, but the dialogue is numbingly prosaic, and character development approaches nil. Whatever happened to those zebra dancers?
The singing and dancing pick up again, thankfully — the production features over 40 minutes of original music, most of which shines — but at no point are the songs emotionally informed by the action in the play. Maybe it’s too much to expect a script to successfully re-contextualize a long sequence of pre-written tunes each in turn. Still, so much of Jilly Manilly is fun that one can’t help but wish for a more cohesive whole.
The premise will be familiar to most music fans, whether you grew up with Milli Vanilli or Ashlee Simpson. Ambitious singer Jilly Manilly wants to make it big, so she teams up with her boyfriend and record producer Mark (Kelsey Saunders) to co-opt and perform numerous unreleased voice recordings from the young artist Valencia (Reed). But karma’s a bitch, especially in showbiz, so you know this doesn’t end well. For a while, a drag queen gossip vlogger named LaQuanda Rae (played with appropriate camp by Jase Parker) is hot on Jilly’s trail. And then — LaQuanda was right! — Jilly gets caught lip-syncing live.
What happens next? Can’t tell you, because I don’t know. Turns out the premise of the play is the play itself. Wouldn’t it be more potent to start the play at this point in the story, just as the scandal breaks? Probably. But I’m going to assume that, like me, you’re really here for the music.
Jilly Manilly has 5 performances, ending July 28, 2012, at the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent, 670 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
Hunter rates this 3 out of a possible 5.