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  • Carl Zimring
    http://www.suntimes.com/output/weiss/cst-ftr-shaggs03.html The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, May 3, 2004 BY HEDY WEISS Theater Critic If you believe the
    Message 1 of 1 , May 3, 2004
      http://www.suntimes.com/output/weiss/cst-ftr-shaggs03.html

      "The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World,"

      May 3, 2004

      BY HEDY WEISS Theater Critic

      If you believe the great American musical is little more than a memory from
      some golden past, "The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World," the enthralling
      new show that opened Saturday night at the Lookingglass Theatre Company, is
      bound to make you think again. Like the bizarre, all-girl rock band of the
      late 1960s that inspired it, this musical -- a strange, brilliant,
      unexpected flight of the imagination that takes you by surprise and never
      lets you go -- proves that the form is fully alive, well and ripe for
      reinvention.

      At once haunting and entertaining, "The Shaggs" also is a reminder that
      this classic theatrical form is at its best when it blends a highly
      accessible story with a deeply subversive message (see "Show Boat" and
      "Gypsy"), and that in doing so can be unparalleled in its ability to strike
      directly at the heart and soul of American life.

      First produced last year in Los Angeles, "The Shaggs" is the work of
      Lookingglass veteran Joy Gregory, who penned the book and co-wrote the
      lyrics with Grammy-nominated composer Gunnar Madsen. The two teamed with
      ingenious director and story contributor John Langs and Chicago set
      designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, a wizard of architectural poetry who has
      devised a piece of pure American gothic. Now, with a cast that blends top
      Chicago talent with exceptional guest performers, the show, with that
      "ready for New York" look, should run well beyond its stated closing date
      here.

      Had the Shaggs not really existed, perhaps only Andy Warhol -- himself a
      working-class kid who devised his own very particular concept of art --
      could have invented them. But the Wiggin sisters of Fremont, N.H., were
      (and are) real: the mostly mute and love-driven Helen (the wonderfully
      expressive Hedy Burress), the brash and combative Betty (a palpably
      aggressive Sarah Elizabeth Hays), and the brainy, fiercely loyal Dorothy
      (the ineffably touching Jamey Hood). They were the daughters of a dirt-poor
      mill-worker father (the peerless Larry Neumann Jr., who claims this role
      with an indelible stamp of truth and pain), a man driven by visionary
      dreams of escape and salvation, and his long-suffering wife, Annie
      (Christine Mary Dunford in a performance of tremendously quiet fervor), who
      was clearly far more intelligent than her circumstances might suggest. The
      story of all these people bears telling.

      Outcasts at school, and alienated and overprotected by their parents, the
      sisters are swept up in what their father believes to be a prophecy about
      the family's route to fame and fortune. His abiding fantasy is that the
      girls will make it big as a rock band. Wholly untrained and even musically
      ungifted, yet possessed of the kind of naive poetic and spiritual vision
      often found in "outsider" visual artists, the Shaggs emerged on a
      self-produced recording, "Philosophy of the World," in 1969. Their album,
      with its mix of deadpan schoolgirl observations, Woody Guthrie-like folk
      wisdom, undertones of Christian hymns and overtones of sheer eccentricity,
      could be deemed either a quirkily inspired effort far ahead of its time or
      a dreadful cosmic joke. In the short term, it ended up being a financial
      and spiritual calamity for the Wiggin family.

      Nevertheless, by some fluke, the recording eventually surfaced from the
      rural underground where it was made, and when it was re-released in 1980,
      Frank Zappa asserted that the Shaggs were "better than the Beatles." Cult
      status was immediately assured.

      The blend of tragedy and comedy captured in this production is sublime --
      rendered beautifully through a sophisticated original score, which
      transcends the work of the Shaggs while remaining true to the spirit and
      tone of their music. One song that takes off from the home-schooling
      workbooks used by the girls is particularly stunning, as is a daughter's
      ode to her father. The inclusion of several of the Shaggs' own songs adds
      an additional layer of richness to a show that, among many other things,
      poses the quintessential question: What is art and who can make it?

      The performers (including, in multiple roles, the expertly comic Phil
      Ridarelli and Joe Dempsey) weave their voices in strange -- and strangely
      lovely -- harmonies thanks to Rick Sims' ideal musical direction and the
      work of ace musicians LeRoy Bach, David Hilliard, Matthew Lux and Jonathan
      Mastro. Choreographer Ken Roht finds just the right demented vaudeville in
      it all. And Mara Blumenfeld's wonderfully grim costumes seal in the sadness.

      As Kyle, the curly-headed innocent boy who adores and secretly marries
      Helen, Rob Moore may end up stealing your heart. In an eerily timely echo
      from decades past, it is Kyle who heads off to the war in Vietnam only to
      return drastically altered. As the Shaggs knew all too well, every day
      brings a certain little death, and a dark fatalism invariably worms its way
      through the American dream.
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