Photo by Don Kellogg

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

Let's get one thing perfectly clear - the music of the real-life group, The Shaggs, is confoundedly awful.  Yes, awful.  If you don't believe me, take a listen.

The other thing that needs to be made clearer is that this new musical is based on a very true story.  Yes, true.  I make the point of saying this because nowhere in the playbill (nor the script) is this emphasized except for the standard place below the title of the show on the official credits page (I don't know what else to call that page where it displays the names of producers who are presenting the show, staring the actors, supported by the production and creative staff).  At intermission, I encountered many a patron who were wondering where this story came from.  "It's based on a true story" I told them.  They all looked puzzled.  (Note to self:  mention this in my blog).

There's a lot of good going on in this production.  First, let's give a hearty round of applause for Playwrights Horizons and New York Theatre Workshop for investing time and money in two fine creatives - Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen (Book, Lyrics and Music).  It is obvious that a great deal of personal care, research and pain-staking effort has gone into presenting this not-so-kind story to the world.  Second, you can't leave the theatre without acknowledging the fine performances  - both acting and vocals - that the entire cast delivers.  But... (you knew there was one of these coming, right?)

But... unless I missed something, (and over the 2 hours and 30 minutes it was entirely possible) the show is really a one-trick pony - how The Shaggs came to be and the incredible (some would say disturbing) story behind them.  Did we really need to explore this topic for over 2 1/2 hours?  Time may heal all wounds, but did we really need to heal so much on this single topic?  Time is the enemy of this show.  Time should be used more wisely.   While I'm not saying every show on the planet has to be cut to 90 minutes with no intermission, this show would certainly be a good candidate to try it out on.  Over and over we revisited the same topics - defining family, loyalty, personal identity, and freedom.  Make no mistake, the show is not filled with joy or happiness.   The superb story telling, fine acting, and (when applicable) great music would be served well by shortening the pain-cycle just a bit.

The parents, Austin and Annie Wiggin, are played by two tremendously talented actors - Peter Friedman and Annie Golden.  Mr. Freidman's life-long angst, eternal hope, and haunting fears were palpable from start to finish and Ms. Hood's loneliness, longing, and sadness were nothing short of award winning.  The 3 daughters, The Shaggs, are played by strikingly similar faces to the the real life girls, Sarah Sokolovic (Betty), Emily Walton (Helen), and Jamey Hood (Dot).  Each of them transforms into the individual character that each girl inhabited and brought it to a vivid, often disturbing, life on stage.  A fine supporting cast includes an off-Broadway and New York stage debut by a fresh-faced Cory Michael Smith along side Broadway veterans Kevin Cahoon and the ever-versatile Steve Routman.

If there's any up-side to the painfully long run-time, it's that it provided the opportunity for many moments of glory on stage.  Annie's Ordinary Day brought on goose-bumps, Dot's Don't Say Nothing Bad About My Dad cut like a razor and the Act I closer by the company, Destiny, was a powerhouse.

So, should you go see this show?  Although still in previews and time factor aside, this show's story telling capacity is supreme and it's designed for anyone who loves storytelling and theatre all wrapped up in one.  You'll not only get entertained, but you may learn a few things along the way too.   Kudos to the producers, bravo to the performers, and a polite nudge to the obviously talented creatives to tighten things up a bit.  Despite the mildly disturbing nature of the material, it's certainly well worth the price of admission.