A Successful U.S. 'Girlfriends'

  • Posted on 15 May 2003 at 3:56pm
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A review by Michael Toscano, Special to the Washington Post Thursday, May 15, 2003;

It’s not often one experiences the American premiere of an English musical in a church basement; in fact, it seems entirely unprecedented. But that is exactly the experience Sandy Spring Theatre Group has created with “Girlfriends,” Howard Goodall’s celebration ofBritain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the early, dark days of World War II. The troupe has taken over a basement theater of Rockville’s Millian Memorial United Methodist Church and turned it into a serviceable black box venue for their spirited production of Goodall’s operatic opus.

Girlfriends” has had a checkered experience inEngland. The initial outing, back in 1986, was deemed a success, but substantial reworking of the material doomed a subsequent staging to critical and audience rejection. Goodall, famous on both sides of the pond for his television work with Rowan Atkinson (“Mr. Bean,” “The Black Adder”), has apparently restored the successful material in what might be described as Andrew Lloyd Webber meets Stephen Sondheim.

About 40 songs, reminiscent of both cinematic scores and opera, are woven together with minimal dialogue. Musical themes reappear repeatedly in the vocalization, backed up here only by a New Age-sounding piano accompaniment, rather than the six-piece band used in previous productions. There is no period music, except a brief snippet of a Glenn Miller record. Directed by Stan Levin, and with long-distance support from Goodall himself, “Girlfriends” can be deemed a success, blessed with several outstanding performances in the lead roles, although some of the secondary parts had uneven singing.

This is a stripped-down effort, with the institutional feel of the small theater actually enhancing the ambiance of the bomb shelters, barracks and other less-than-glamorous sites of the story. This not a history of the WAAF, focusing instead on the relationships the women have with the various flyboys with whom they serve, the word serve often taken literally. (“Make some bloody tea!”) The women came from all walks of life to assist the bomber crews trying to repel the Nazi assault, and “Girlfriends” does show them gaining acceptance and graduating from traditional female roles to the more demanding tasks of packing parachutes, loading bombs and staffing the control towers. The crucible of war also makes for intense relationships, with their attendant infatuations, jealousies and rejection. Mia Reeves as Amy, Laura Jeanne Ingalls as Lou and Joshua Davis as Guy are the threesome at the show’s center. Amy and Lou are best friends, Amy and Guy are a love match, but Amy says “no” and Lou says “yes,” so guess which girl gets Guy for the second act.

Coloratura Reeves and mezzo-soprano Ingalls have beautiful voices and carefully calibrated acting combining fire and ice. They join Davis, his sweet tenor soaring, in the haunting ballad “My Heart Lies Somewhere Else.” Davis and Ingalls spill hot emotion and anger as they break apart in “Remember.”Davismatures his character, passing from callow lad with an old man’s demeanor, in that way of the well-bred British, to a battle-hardened, clear-eyed man. Another strong performance is turned in by Rebecca A. Herron, as the fun-loving Glasgow lassie Jasmine, who undergoes significant change with war’s heavy toll. She also gets through some of the more awkward lyrics, including “I’m losing weight, I’m two weeks late, it’s half-past eight,” in the tribute to wartime hardship, “This Bloomin’ Cap.”

Unfortunately, secondary leads Salima Chadly as Sally Sparrow, Mike Martin as Guy’s pal Gareth and Faith Evans as Jane are not up to the complicated vocal passages, their voices often weak and gratingly flat. But despite some vocal flaws, the music remains hypnotically beautiful, the acting capable, and Levin’s lively direction keeps the hardworking cast maintaining their energy over three hours. It is a worthwhile effort and a worthy introduction to Goodall’s work.

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