When one reads a title like Are You There God? It’s Me. Karen Carpenter, one can’t help but go, ummm…WTF? I had no idea what to expect when I took my seat at the Hugo House on Capital Hill in Seattle, WA for STAGEright’s opening night performance of their 20th show. The set was painted very 1970’s stripes, the lighting was psychedelic and the music was, obviously, The Carpenters. The scene was set for a good time, and I was anxious to see what this was all about. The house lights went out, and the show began, and for the next 90 minutes or so, I laughed my fool ass off, because this show is friggin hysterical!
This play, written by the brilliant Dane Whitlock, takes the beloved children’s story of Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret, and inserts the songs made famous by Karen Carpenter to drive the story along and it is pure genius. It’s quirky, it’s witty, and it’s 100% fun!
So, what has STAGEright done with with hilariously written tale? Well, they cast seriously talented actors to transport the audience back to the 1970s to follow the story of young Margaret, played expertly by Emily Rose (EmRo) Frasca! Oh, my, this chick! This unbelievably talented chick, elevated one of my favorite childhood characters so beautifully, I was in awe. Ms. Frasca anchored this show perfectly with her impeccable comedic timing, her wonderfully genuine line delivery, and her hilarious physicality that I was completely able to suspend my disbelief in that this grown woman was a pre-teen sensation, and I adored her!
Mr. Whitlock’s script takes us through all the main components of Judy Blume’s book after Margaret moves to New Jersey and meets Nancy, the sassy young lady who
lives down the street. Nancy is the bossy, queen bee of her own universe, and leads a secret club with Margaret and two other girls, Gretchen and Janie. These four discuss and experience everything from boys to bras to learning the technical jargon surrounding female reproductive system, and are all just longing to grow up as fast as they can, complete with boobs and menst-a-rating, and the four actors who took on this challenge were phenomenal.
Ms. Frasca was in great company with Shermona Mitchell, as the fiery Janie who is neither intimidated by the bossy Nancy, nor is afraid to speak her mind, Abbey Roads as the delightful andhysterical Gretchen who stole every scene she was in (OMG! Her facial expressions were priceless! I’m a huge fan!), and Olivia Lee as Nancy who so badly wants to just grow up and is inspired by the women in her dad’s Playboy magazine! All three of these ladies were fantastic in their roles, completely committed to their characters, each vastly different from the others.
Let me take a moment, though, and talk about Ms. Lee and her amazing portrayal as Nancy. The nuances that Ms. Lee creates in her characters is absolutely fascinating. She pulls my focus, in the best possible way, whenever she’s on stage, because she so clearly works her intentions. I recently saw Ms. Lee as the Witch in STAGEright’s Into the Woods (reviewed here), and I was so impressed with her in that production, that I had high expectations of her in this play, and she did not disappoint! Her bravery in character development, her fearless silliness, and her phenomenal physicality made an otherwise irritating character (who Nancy would have been in the hands of a less skilled actress) absolutely lovable. I look forward to seeing Ms. Lee in many more productions!
Another standout performance was of Emily Feliciano who played multiple roles ranging from Nancy’s little brother Evan, to the heartthrob of the class, Phillip Leroy. Her character transitions were impeccable, her deadpan face added levels to each scene, and her commitment to her gender flipped characters was brilliant! Although, my favorite of her characters was just her and a can of, I believe, was Aquanet Hairspray. Trust me people, watching her with that can alone is worth the price of admission!
One other performance I want to point out was Cedric Wright who played both Moose (Margaret’s love interest) and Norman Fishbein, an awkward Jewish boy. Mr. Wright’s transition from one character to the next was flawless completely with physical changes and speech impediments. He was adorable and funny, and had the perfect combination of charisma and goofiness that is needed when a grown man plays the part of a teenage boy. And there was a moment involving spit, that while it was a complete accident, I hope they find a way to effortlessly recreate it every night, because it just elevated the scene to a level of humor that ya just can’t force! And kudos to the whole cast for regrouping after that! I LOVE LIVE THEATRE!!!
There were some weaknesses in this production, and sadly for me it came in the forms of the ‘grownups’ in the show. All the children were played beautifully, but the adults were mostly played by either Jay Irwin or Michelle Flowers, and they gender flipped each character having Mr. Irwin play everyone’s mother and Ms. Flowers playing Margaret’s dad and male school teacher. It just didn’t work. Mr. Irwin was extremely over the top, and his timing was off, so the jokes rarely worked. I saw him trying to work levels between normal speech patters and then dropping into his deeper voice, but the transitions were far from smooth and thus, missed the mark. There was a lot of yelling, and I didn’t understand the motivation for that. And Ms. Flowers was not believable as a man in either role. She misses the physicality needed to pull off masculine energy. And there’s a scene between Margaret’s dad and Moose that was so uncomfortable, and not just because of the dialogue, but because the chemistry and read of the role by Ms. Flowers was ineffective. I saw what director, and Artistic Director of STAGEright, Brendan Mack was going for with these characters, but sadly, they were the weakest performances in the show.
This show was music directed by the brilliant Josh Zimmerman (who I originally expressed my love for in my review of his music direction in Next to Normal at Second Story Rep), and the music truly was fantastic! There were some sound issues in the beginning where the band overpowered the actors, but the adjustments that were made throughout the show fixed that, and it all came together in the stunning fashion I have come to expect from Mr. Zimmerman. Ms. Frasca can sing her face off, and every time she sang a solo, my heart soared! Karen Carpenter would have been proud. I also enjoyed the voices of most of the “children.” The weakness of the adults continued on into their vocal performances, including, what I thought was the biggest vocal disappointment of the show: Karen Carpenter, played by Stephanie Graham.
Ms. Graham’s voice does not have the soft, sweet tone that Karen Carpenter had, and once Ms. Frasca joined in on the one song Karen Carpenter sings in the show, Ms. Graham was completely lost vocally. However, while she may not have had a strong vocal performance, and also completely overdid her performances in the other ensemble roles she played (especially that of Coach Barb Strutts…it was too much on level 10 the entire time of being over the top and overacted, so the impact wasn’t well received by much of the audience, and completely irritated me), Ms. Graham did look EXACTLY like Karen Carpenter!
Wow! I mean, the costumers, Cherelle and Jonelle Ashby, outdid themselves with the costume for Karen Carpenter. The white pants, the vest, the wig! Loved it all! And Ms. Graham is so tall and thin that when she stepped on stage, she took my breath away with how similar she looked to Karen! Bravo to the design team on pulling off a doppleganger of that magnitude with such an iconic figure as Karen Carpenter to recreate!
Overall the direction was strong and concise by Mr. Mack, and the design and use of Barbie dolls was inspired! You’ll have to just go see it to know what I’m talking about.
This creative, fun filled, and highly entertaining play runs through June 27th. I strongly, seriously, and Nancy-level-bossily suggest you go see this show! Further details and ticket information can be found on STAGEright’s website.
Loved it! Adored it! Laughed the entire time! GO SEE IT! I mean it!
Ciao for now,
Photos courtesy of STAGEright and their Facebook page.