I haven’t seen a show so polarize an audience since Studio Theatre staged Annie Baker’s The Aliens, where I witnessed multiple patrons demanding their money back at intermission and a patron in the front row hissing “It’s like watching paint dry!” in between scenes. But critics loved that show, and The Aliens turned out to be a stepping stone for Annie Baker to win the 2014 Pulitzer for Drama for The Flick.
And while I don’t anticipate book and lyrics writer Anton Dudley and composer Brian Feinstein will win any awards for the new musical Girlstar, the show has much more merit than many who were in attendance last Saturday night (especially the good number who left after the first act) will give it credit for.
The story surrounds the family of a woman who had amazing musical talent and is deceased by the beginning of the play. Her older sister Daniella (played by the ferociously talented Donna Migliaccio), jealous of her talent, develops into the classic trifecta of music producer/fashionista/black magic witch and uses a magical neon green liquid to roofie her signees and steal their talents. She stores the pilfered talent in a snake’s belly (I mean, where do you keep your illicitly obtained magic talent mojo?) in an attempt to gather enough talent to create the ultimate pop star.
Conveniently, all her estranged niece, daughter of the deceased Tina (Desi Oakley), wants is to become that ultimate pop star. Country girl Tina runs away from her uncle Derek (a tantalizing and dangerously scruffy Bobby Smith) to her vampiric big city aunt who cackles while draining her co-stars of their talents one by one, eventually forging Tina into a total sellout pop star.
It’s against policy to give away endings, but if you’re getting the feeling that Tina will rebel against her domineering aunt to return to the homely country roots of her mother, you won’t be far off.
If this sounds more than a little silly, that’s both the point and the reason this show is so contentious.
Girlstar has two faces: a forward-facing dark fantasy critique of American celebrity culture, and a sneakier, much prettier and riotously funny face of one of the most delightfully cult-y new musicals I’ve seen in awhile. These two views are reflected by two different kinds of experiences that audience members expect from their theater: some are Very Serious theater goers, looking for dramatic entertainment that is intellectually enticing and spiritually stimulating; others prefer High Camp, shows that push the dramatic to the overdramatic and find joy in the broadest of strokes.
Contentiousness comes with expectation, and expectations are everything when it comes to making the time and financial commitment to attend a show. If you come in with expectations of a Very Serious, if fantasy-based, shot across the bow of our culture’s current vapid worship of mediocre pop musicians, you’re going to have a rough 2 hours, marred by dialogue and lyrics devoid of subtext, more plot holes than a Lovecraftian graveyard, and songs couched in expensive but ineffectively utilized design elements.
But if you bring your sense of humor and come in expecting a schlocky send-up of both pop-laden musicals and the fairy tale tropes appropriated by a plurality of bad new plays, you’re going to have a blast that is heightened by wackily indicative choreography, quirky rhymes, plots, and metaphors stretched harder than a yogi, and the most blatantly (and amusingly) ridiculous design applications of top tier theater technology executed to perfection by equally top class technicians.
But in paraphrased questions first asked by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe more than 200 years ago: which is it that the artists intended and have they accomplished what is intended?
While I think it is more important what actually takes place on the stage and what reactions it inspires (rather than what the artists intend to happen and what reactions they intend to inspire), I think there are some clues that this play is the apex of camp rather than the nadir of cultural critique.
The first is the book itself, both in its word choice and plot developments. Any script that has the words “magical liquid” in the first paragraph, especially in reference to a talent-draining snake witch, is bound to at least flirt with the bounds of camp. Furthermore, if a character unexpectedly disappears for the entire second act of a show only to pop out at the most convenient time after being incarcerated under the floor in a “secret chamber of dreams,” that show has more than a passing flirtation with the goofy.
Lorin Lararro’s quirky and indicative choreography is another tell. In the opening number “One Eye Open,” while Donna Migliaccio’s magnificent vocal belts are filling the room, she covers half her face with a hand like she is holding a steak to her eye to treat a shiner, leaving, very literally, one eye open. When she bathes her hands in glowing green snake mojo descending in a cauldron from the ceiling or when Tina discovers “Music Everywhere” early in the 2nd Act by wiggling her fingers in the air like she is washing her hands in a particularly unsanitary public restroom, the choreography is adroitly telegraphing that we should be having a hearty chuckle, not a spiritually transcendent moment.
The design of the show might be the biggest indicator that Girlstar is beautifully ludicrous, though it also perhaps the biggest contributor to the expectation of this musical aiming for a more straight-up anti-fame message.
The important thing to recognize about the design is that it is extravagant by every measure, a hint that the show takes itself seriously (whereas campy musicals tend toward the makeshift as a nod to their self-deprecation). Not only is Signature’s MAX Theater outfitted with it’s regular extensive lighting cadre, but there is a whole additional separate ring of lighting rigs above the stage: famously quality and versatile Intelligent Lights outfitted with projectors on top of them.
Normally, that would indicate a Very Serious show with “high production values,” which is theaterspeak for straight out of New York or very very expensive. But Lighting Designer Jason Lyons and Video Designer Matthew Haber opt for the least subtle applications possible, managing to imitate both the flashy effects of the hottest female pop stars and the classiest possible version of those suburban mall stores from my teen years where I would secretly record videos of myself singing Prince in falsetto.
These designers are no slouches; they brilliantly summon nostalgia for silly American classics like Jem and the Holograms as a way of winking at the audience to tell us that we should take equally silly joy in this production. But this high class, but perhaps low brow, design can be deceptive. If this much effort and expense was put into this design, shouldn’t the product be (and be judged as) High Art not High Camp?
Similarly, the breadth and complexity of Frank Labovitz’s costumes might be considered worth the ticket itself at a house less accomplished than Signature. Though I’m relatively sure they were fake, the number of jet black and green highlighted bird feathers (they’re black and Slytherin green, because those are the colors of EVIL) covering the songstress/sorceress Daniele’s costumes might have murdered a whole murder of crows, not to mention a second act ensemble for her that left my jaw slack with its revealing bust. Also, the dizzying number of costumes for the ladies of the cast, almost all accompanied by menacingly elevated and stylish heels, might fool one into thinking that a Very Serious dark yet classy world was being produced.
But Labovitz makes the number one dancing star’s costume impossible to dance in. He gives post-pop star, “I’ve given in to the Dark Side of fame” Tina a midriff revealing shirt that should have been buried with Britney Spears’ career, and Daniele’s opening costume for Act Two makes it seem like the murdered murder of crows have risen from the dead to savage Donna Migliaccio’s torso. So, very pointedly the costumes (and other designs) shout that they are criticizing contemporary celebrity culture, just through over-exaggerated imitation rather than allegorical sniping.
October 13 – November 15, 2015
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206
2 hours, 5 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $67 – $92
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
The one aspect of Girlstar that should get unambiguous respect, whether you see the show as Very Serious or High Camp, is the total commitment and undeniable skill of this entire cast of actors. Much of the show’s humor, or genuine skewering of the entertainment elite, relies on how you view Donna Migliaccio’s central performance. But there’s no denying that Migliaccio, with her room-filling pipes and nefariously villainous performance, puts the whole show on her back and carries it wherever it goes.
Bobby Smith as homespun, PBR-drinking Uncle Derek sends shockwaves from the stage with explosions of emotion. Smith proves yet again that he is one of the most consistently strong musical theater actors on DC stages, no matter what part he is handed. Sam Edgerly (as Jeff, Tina’s awkward love interest) also displays great musical theater chops, alternating moments of genuine feeling with goofy verbal tics.
None of these actors flinch or ham it up with their lines, but that is another element of Girlstar that displays a dichotomy. If the play is trying to be a revelatory jeremiad against pop culture, these actors have done right by playing it straight. If the play is meant to be a wacky send-up, the actors playing straight only enhances the humor. Either way, Director Eric Schaeffer has led them down the correct path.
That’s not dissimilar to the purpose of this review, because the final question that Goethe asked so long ago was “is what the artists intended to do worth doing?” and that is why I have to give the show a numeric rating.
I fear that someone who goes into Girlstar expecting to see a “dark pop fantasy” (as the show is advertised) might run away at intermission or begrudge audience members laughing at the moments of what the Very Serious crowd perceive to be highest drama, but others see as highest camp. For that Very Serious crowd, someone who’s looking for a deep intellectual, emotional, or spiritual experience at the theater, Girlstar is a decent concept with hardworking actors brought down by simplistic book and music, and would only rate 1 star.
But it isn’t fair to judge a soon-to-be classic musical by those standards. After all, no one expects that kind of experience from Rocky Horror, Carrie the Musical, or Reefer Madness. That doesn’t make them lesser theater, just lower brow.
So for the High Camp crowd, this play is a blast, the treat of the season, and easily merits 5 stars.
Girlstar with Book and Lyrics by Anton Dudley and Music by Brian Feinstein . Directed by Eric Schaeffer . Featuring Donna Migliaccio, Desi Oakley, Bobby Smith, Diana Huey, Jamie Eacker, Sam Edgerly, Kellee Knighten Hough, Nora Palka, and Bayla Whitten . Set Design: Paul Tate Depoo III . Lighting Design: Jason Lyons . Costume Design: Frank Labovitz . Sound Design: Lane Elms . Video Design: Matthew Haber . Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein . Assistant Stage Manager: Julianne Manassian . Musical Direction & Vocal Arrangements: Adam Wachter . Choreography: Lorin Latarro. Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Alan Katz.