Friday 7 July 2017

As time does not permit a 2nd look at this show, I submit it anew as originally reviewed back in February in full faith it retains its original qualities.  \ B

Bittergirl a madcap Sex & the City musical romp
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  On Friday, September 14, 2001 my wife and I frantically searched for something to watch on t.v. to escape visions of the unspeakable events from 9/11 three days previously. With more pain than vehemence I announced : "I can't imagine bringing myself to watch Sex And the City ever again...". And since that day I haven't. Not a moment's urge to take in even one re-run episode.

But then 16 years later along comes Bittergirl, ACT's current On Tour musical show (that will play Granville Island June 15-July 29). It forces viewers to flip back in time pre-9/11 to a simpler and more simplistic epoch. Bubba was Prez, like him the economy was tumescent. That S&TC time "when girls were girls and men were men", assuming the very notion itself doesn't make you gag on four or five levels. 

Bittergirl is gags all right. Put to song-&-dance. To a swack of 60's girl band riffs, three friends commiserate how they each got dumped by their man. How they moped and wept and stewed and fretted, and then coped, antically, frantically, trying to make lemonade from the lemons they'd been handed. Mostly how, as women, they were socially and culturally conditioned : to over-analyze the krap out of their miseries and fill the airwaves about it all ad nauseam.

How it's all put together : This is musical comedy that is fetching and magnetic and enticing because it conjures those pre-cynical times, as unliberated and unliberating as they might have been. The actors are given letters instead of names : the "dumpee" women called A, B and C. An everyman character, D, plays each of the women's ex's. This, presumably, to point to some sort of universality of the first-world Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus experiences many of us in North America had back in the day.

As co-author Alison Lawrence told Richard Ouzounian in 2014, "You have to turn your tragedies into funny stories. You tell them so often that you can make people at cocktail parties laugh over what once made you cry." And cocktails are gulped down just that much more gustily with the aid of catchy tunes from the Detroit of Boomer daze : The Ronnettes ("Be My Baby"), The Crystals ("And Then He Kissed Me"), The Three Degrees ("When Will I See You Again?") or Ashford & Simpson ("Ain't No Mountain High Enough").  It's as if Bittergirl was written to put all the song lyrics into a story decades after the fact.

What the show brings to the stage : Campy, kitschy satire is surely the result in today's world from a script first launched in 1999. What else to do with the dialogue of D (Josh Epstein) when he utters such groaners as "It's not us, it's me!" (a line I used back in '62 in Grade 11). That one is almost always twinned with "I can't give you what you need...".  What about the existential angst approach : "I've lost my drive, my passion, my magic..." or "I love you, but I'm not in love with you." But, best for last, this screecher : "This is hard for me you know...I'm going to be the bad guy here," D says in a tone of mock self-flagellation and projected pain. To show his empathy right up front, don't you know.

Break-ups, particularly in our junior grown-up years, basically sucked. There was usually no mutuality involved. A "do-er" dumped a "do-ee". After the shock, the Kubler-Ross formula DANDA kicked in big-time : denial, anger, negotiation, depression, acceptance. Then came the manic phase every 30-something I ever knew (self-included) went through : such things as ditch the sensible sedan & buy a snazzy sportscar; dress up in designer duds, start working out; eat-binge; drink-binge; sex-binge if you get lucky; either go bohemian or anal-retentive immaculate -- the variations on a theme are almost endless. But mostly a self-indulgent, self-pitying schtick that lasts as long as you let it.

Production values that shine through : There is no narrative or dramatic arc here. Just a sequence of songs (see Addendum) that the women sing in trio, spoken lines in unison, a stream of musical moments that bring to life and provide a kind of storyline to the lyrics of the tunes they sing.  Tight, tight, tight! harmonies among the three all night long. Slick stuff indeed. 

Clever LBD costumes for all three women atop their Ron Zalko fitness shorts. Interlacing the three women's experiences -- the abandoned married mom who supported her grad school husband; the long-term live-in who was jilted her on "marriage proposal evening"; the short-term hot-to-trot gal whose lover lost his "magic" -- all the frantic spinnery of the three as stitched together by Director / Choreographer Easton was really quite priceless.  

A wee quibble about the band : while obviously capable and competent, their style was a bit too prosaic to this ear. It was if they needed a wee bit of Blood, Sweat & Tears interpolation to jazz them up a bit.

Acting pin-spots : Lauren Bowler never fails to zap this viewer's senses with her spunk, her command, her zing and crisp delivery. And in this role she showed she could clean your house as efficiently as she'd clean your clock if you crossed her. But also good punchy delivery from both Cailin Stadnyk and Katrina Reynolds as well, Stadnyk crescendoing nicely into the show's final numbers. Josh Epstein as Everyman Dork was nimble and fun as the x3 Jilter -- and probably the best vocal power among the troupe.

Favourites : "Anyone Who Ever Loved" -- best of the night -- tears came big. Stadnyk's Barbie / Ken doll sequence sparring with RCMP-wannabe hubby. The "Love Hurts" cell phone bit to kick off Act 2 that was pure unadulterated ROTFLMFAO. And, of course, the Tequila shooter scene that morphed from "orange is the new black" to glittery sequin'd magic at show's end. 

Who gonna like : Full-immersion girl-group sing-along. The lyrics of those long-ago achy-breaky songs brought to life. This is life in the time of Archie and Edith Bunker writ large through music. Whatever relationship it had with the real lives of the playwrights is purely incidental at the hands of she-who-can-do-no-wrong-in-my-mind Valerie Easton. Fun, silly, musicky, lyrical stuff that manages to draw out a few tears of sentiment along with all the laugh lines from songs and times we Boomers cherish. 

Some complain the script is too "untimely" in an age when women's breakthroughs of ceilings high-&-low are demanded. But as much fun and purpose in Bittergirl as in a re-mount of West Side Story or Mama Mia! or ACT's incomparable Black & Gold Revue that rocked Vancouver some 30 summers back. The question is not "Why?" but "Why not!

Almost to a person in an almost full-house, the Surrey Arts Centre audience gave a rousing & robust & lengthy standing-o at last night's performance. And no wonder.

Particulars :  Written by Annabelle Griffiths Fitzsimmons, Alison Lawrence, Mary Francis Moore. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  Run-time 85 minutes with one intermission.  At the following venues, dates and Ticket Information phone numbers as noted :
>  Surrey Arts Centre, now until March 4th, 604.501.5566.  
>  Clarke Theatre, Mission, March 5th, 1.877.299.1644.  
>  Evergreen Cultural Centre, Coquitlam, March 7-11, 604.927.6555.  
>  ACT Arts Centre, Maple Ridge, March 12th, 60.476.2787.  
>  Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, Burnaby, March 14-15, 604.205.3000.  

Production team :  Director / Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Music Director Diane Lines. Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Lighting Designer Robert Sondergaard.  Lighting Designer (select venues) Ken Reckahn.  Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.  Running crew : Alberto White, Head Tour Technician.  Darren John, Tour Technician.

The Band : Diane Lines (Piano).  Madeleine Elkins (Guitar).  Niko Friesen (Drums).  Linda Kidder (Bass). 

Performers :  A = Lauren Bowler.  B = Katrina Reynolds.  C = Cailin Stadnyk.  D = Josh Epstein.

Addendum, Song List :
There's No Other Like My Baby (written by Phil Spector & Leroy Bates)

Opening Medley:
    I Hear a Symphony (Holland-Dozier-Holland)
    And Then He Kissed Me (written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry)
     He's a Rebel (written by Gene Pitney)

Where Did Our Love Go (written by Holland-Dozier-Holland)
If I Can Dream (written by Earl Brown)
Mama Said (written by Luther Dixon & Willie Denson)
Anyone Who Had A Heart (written by Burt Bacharach & Hal David)

Fitness Medley:
     I'm Gonna Make You Love Me (written by Kenneth Gamble & Jerry Ross)
     Ain't No Mountain High Enough (written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson)
     Hot stuff (written by Peter Bellotte, Harold Faltermeyer & Keith Forsey)

When Will I See You Again (written by Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff)
Always Something There To Remind Me (written by Burt Bacharach & Hal David)
Tell Him (written by Bert Berns)
Be My Baby (written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry)
Love Hurts (written by Boudreaux Bryant)
Think (written by Aretha Franklin & Ted White)
Yesterday Man (written by Chris Andres)

Jail Cell Medley:
     This Is My Life (written by Bruno Canfora with English lyrics by Norman Newell)
     Keep Me Hangin' On (written by Holland-Dozier-Holland)
     I Will Survive (written by Dino George Freaks & Freddie Perren, immortalized by Gloria Gaynor)

Megamix Finale:
     Too Many Fish In The Sea (written by Norman Whitfield & Eddie Holland)
    Mama Said -- Ain't No Mountain High Enough -- I Will Survive -- Hot Stuff -- Keep Me Hangin' 
     On -- Think -- This Is My Life


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