Theater Info for the Washington DC region

American Century Theater Stunt Girl

By • Jun 30th, 2008 • Category: Reviews

On Sunday, June 29, 2008, over 250 bodies crushed together in the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington, waiting with baited breath to see and hear the new musical Stunt Girl, presented by The American Century Theater (TACT). It was over 90 degrees, and the air conditioning was broken, but no one seemed to care. There was a lot of anticipation about this new work buzzing through the crowd. Done as a staged reading, with simple black/white attire, books in hand, basic set pieces and a lone pianist, the large ensemble took us through 2.5 hours of the life of a historical female. Nelly Bly was a ground-breaking reporter for the New York World, the first female war correspondent, and one of the first females to run a large corporation and provide both healthcare and equal pay for all employees. Impressive feats for anyone, but especially for one girl to accomplish before women even had the right to vote!

Written by Tony-nominated playwright Peter Kellogg and Disney composer David Friedman, the brand new show was a worthy effort. The hard-working cast, featuring Peggy Yates, Rob McQuay, Dan Herrel, Mick Tinder, Patricia Hurley, Ron Saro, and Evan Hoffman, gave us energy and excitement and never showed a sign of the sweltering heat or lack of dedication to the material they were presenting. They all deserve a huge round of applause for effort. This was a staged reading, but they never gave that impression-the cast was 90% off book for their music and lines, and gave the audience a real performance.

The staged singing presented all fifteen songs, two finales, and a few reprises, and covered the most crucial time period in Bly’s life, from 1888-1918. The story began with a persevering Nellie Bly (Peggy Yates) vying for a job at the New York World, run at the time by the renowned Joseph Pulitzer…yes, THAT Pulitzer, played by Rob McQuay. There’s romance with a staff member, Arthur Brisbane (Dan Herrel), and jealousy from a competing fellow journalist Howard (Evan Hoffman) and secretary Phoebe (Patricia Hurley)…a marriage proposal from the wealthy older man, Robert Seaman (Mick Tinder), and a charming group of newsboys who help the audience get the important “headlines for today.”

Act I explores the highlights of Nellie’s younger life, from her days as an upstart reporter uncovering explosive local stories to her more experienced self traveling around the world in…72 days and 6 hours, and ends with her acceptance of Seaman’s marriage proposal.

Act II gives us a look at Nellie’s later private world, with married life less than stellar until her husband gives her a chance to help run his iron empire. Unfortunately, his untimely death leaves Nellie with a lot of responsibilities that even spunk and determination can’t overcome. Heartache and scandal have our heroine running to Europe to escape her troubles. Arthur, now managing the New York World, has a flash of inspiration (assisted by none other than Pulitzer’s ghost) to have Nellie cover the war in Europe. And although she hasn’t lived the life of a reporter for some time, and wonders if it’s still a world she can handle, eventually she realizes it is where she belongs.

The words in this musical are the driving force. The song lyrics are excellent, the dialogue funny and original, and the points of Nellie’s life covered are relevant and interesting. They are all terrific choices for showcasing a historical piece. Unfortunately, the music isn’t quite a match for the quality of the script. Much of it runs together with similar chord structures and too many of those clever lyrics, rendering some of the songs too wordy for their own good. Friedman also does his singers a general disservice, writing with such range in each and every song that it’s impossible for most of them to sound comfortable or get into a groove. You could see the struggle, and hear it, and in something like this piece, it should seem natural and effortless. The ending of the piece was also a bit of a disappointment. After all the build and excitement, we were expecting it to close with the proverbial bang. Instead, the ending was quiet and uneventful. It was clearly a choice, and not one that necessarily worked.

The leading roles of Nellie & Arthur were slightly miscast with Peggy Yates and Dan Herrel. Neither were exactly what their parts called for, and yet, it was a true treat to see them in this performance. Both are very strong as actors and singers, and gave 110% to their roles. Yates was especially impressive with a broad vocal range, plucky persona, and deft acting and accent abilities. 

The other romantic pairing in the cast, that of Phoebe & Howard (Patricia Hurley & Evan Hoffman) was a better fit for casting in a full production…they were dead on in their characterizations, and nearly stole the show with their expressions, terrific singing, and chemistry. Rob McQuay as the tough as nails Pulitzer gave a delightful performance, complete with layered acting and emotional singing. Mick Tinder had the daunting task of making the straight man who stole the leading lady from her soulmate into someone real and emotionally viable, and he accomplished this nicely, with a unique voice and just a hint of vulnerability. Special mention goes to the leading newsboy, Kevin Clay, whose beautiful choir-boy voice broke through the on stage noise and pierced the back of the auditorium. Great job, and we’re sure to see him in the future!

Song highlights included Don’t Bore Them, I’ll Be Sweet, Around the World, Make Him Jealous, Do What the Lady Says, and After All These Years. A big criticism of the music is that the very best songs didn’t belong to the star. Many of Nellie’s numbers bordered on forgettable with the exception of I’m in Hell, which was a hilarious show stopper and a piece worthy of her fiery personality. Most of her music could have been written in the lower belting range, befitting her brash character. And then to illustrate her vulnerability, songs written entirely in the higher head voice range with a very lyrical style would have been nice. Instead, her music is all over the place, all the time, never getting a chance to bond with her character and settle in. Hers is a story that needs no padding. It’s fascinating, exciting, and vivid. If Nellie Bly were ice cream, she’d be equal parts rum raisin, milk chocolate, rocky road and strawberry swirl. Unfortunately, with the music she’s given in this show, she’s a little too vanilla. 

This musical has a lot of potential, but an overhaul of the music needs to be done, with the cutting of some less crucial numbers and then restructuring of Nellie’s pieces in particular. Take some of Pulitzer’s advice: “Condense!”

Director Larry Kaye gave us a full show, never letting on that this was just a staged reading. He did as much staging as possible with his large cast and limited set, and most of it worked. Some of the group numbers became a little muddled, but that can be blamed on the space and the scripts in hand. 

Nancy Harry did a nice job with just enough choreography to keep the show from becoming static. Mary Sugar (pianist/accompanist) deserves special credit for her marvelous performance. It was a huge score and she worked tirelessly to deliver solid support and artistry to her singers. 

Overall, it was a very, very good first outing. It was ambitious, well rehearsed, eloquent, emotional, and fun. Congratulations to all involved!

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