“The Shaggs” in its Capital Region Premiere Makes You Cherish Bridge Street Theatre
It is increasingly rare that you encounter works of art of singular conception, origin, design and execution. “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World” could only be grabbing us by the heart in its Capital Region debut at the fabulously idiosyncratic and passionately faithful to their own dictates, Bridge Street Theatre, scheduled and created by their co-founders Steven Patterson and John Sowle. Coincidentally, it is a story about glimpsing a vision of what you imagine is capable with art, getting in touch with your true passion and pursuing it with a relentless focus. “The Shaggs” operates almost as a mission statement in some weird way, so close to what I believe they feel art and their place in the world making it must feel like to them.
“The Shaggs” tells the wildly improbable, therefore it must be true, story of the three Wiggin sisters in Fremont, NH in 1968. Their father, an unfulfilled mill worker, witnesses their ecstasy watching The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show and has an epiphany. His mother had foretold from palm readings that his three girls were going to be in a band. He spends his family’s life savings, takes his three girls who have no musical training out of school, buys them all instruments, signs them up for local talent shows, orders them to write songs, rehearses them on a strict schedule in the garage and books them a day’s worth of studio time to record an album that will make the family rich, save them all from their monotonous, work-a-day life and show the town that his girls were different. They played their town hall shows to jeers and hurled objects for years. The music on the album had odd meters, sounded like the girls were playing together from different rooms and the lyrics in their title song, “Philosophy of the World” go “We do our best, we try to please/ But we’re like the rest we’re never at ease/ You can never please/ Anybody/ In this world.” One of the characters describes their music as “The Mouseketeers on Mars.” Their father dies in bed of a heart attack at 47 never seeing his girls successful in their band. In 1980, an indie label, re-releases the album and it is embraced and dismissed simultaneously for its simplicity or naivete becoming a cult item and an enduring rock legend. It is hailed by Rolling Stone as the comeback of the year to which Betty Wiggin replies “Comeback? We never were anywhere.” Frank Zappa said “They’re better than the Beatles” and Kurt Cobain claimed that with their perfectly intuitive music The Shaggs were among his greatest artistic influences.
The musical telling this story has a book and lyrics by Joy Gregory and music and lyrics by Gunnar Madsen and was originally produced at Playwright’s Horizons in 2011 and that is where the evening itself diverges from comparisons with The Shaggs’ album as there is a great deal of artistry, craft and stunningly beautiful music happening on the Catskill stage. John Sowle is the director and designer of this production and the company’s Artistic and Managing Director. A musical, even a modest one like this one, is a huge undertaking for a small company and they have done exemplary, arduous work bringing this to the stage. The design of BST shows are always kept to an essential minimum with great ingenuity to align with their spatial and budgetary constraints and this one is no different using a raised turntable stage right a door stage left and a platform sliding off and on to create dozens of locations from the home, school, grocery store, talent show to recording studio. The staging of the scene in the grocery store highlighting a song from Helen, the most reclusive daughter, is an early highlight using shopping carts for a D.I.Y. pop dreamscape. The performance may be, forgive me, shaggy in places with wandering dialects and slow or missed lines but it never prohibits your enjoyment and almost convinces you it is deliberate and of a piece with the enthusiastic amateurism of the subject. There is a fourpiece band tucked into the downstage right corner that sounded terrific and didn’t overpower the singers who were refreshingly unmiced. The music direction by Michelle Storrs is superb. Her conducting of the band and especially her work with the young singers is world class, without which the show would have been impossible. Choreographer Marcus McGregor gives the girls some witty turns and flourishes. Costumer Michelle Rogers contributed eye-catching matching tunics and a Nehru jacket to dress the band that were fun.
The cast is another audacious risk on Bridge Street’s part in choosing and producing this show which pays off fantastically. Five of the cast are recent or current Catskill High School students which must have a fantastic drama club led by this production’s Musical Director, Michelle Storrs, because all five have a stage maturity well beyond their years. The always powerful Steven Patterson is galvanically playing the father Arthur Wiggin and is Associate Director of the theatre. His father may start out as a crackpot but you always see the tender devotion and pure faith as well until a car scene late in the play that scared the living hell out of me. Another titanic performance by Mr. Patterson and this one sings! Molly Parker Myers, so great in previous productions at BST especially her unmoored maiden sister in this season’s “The Moors” offers solid support in the role of the girls mother Annie who has a solo that deftly paints a picture of long suffering. Julian Broughton plays multiple roles, most memorably the studio engineer who can’t quite believe his ears and when offering a scratch vocal rehearsal is rebuffed by Arthur who wants to immediately jump to recording to get “them while they’re hot!” Edward Donahue, a recent CHS graduate, plays multiple roles and startles with his maturity, presence and nascent stagecraft. He earns frequent laughs and grabs attention throughout. Magnus Bush also graduated CHS this year and plays Kyle Nelson, Helen Wiggin’s crush from high school who eventually marries her secretly. Mr. Bush is sweetly appealing and very movingly effective late in the play conveying the toll taken by time and life going on outside the confines of Fremont and The Shaggs’ universe. The three sisters are Alexa Powell, Amara Wilson and Meeghan Darling who play Dot, Betty and Helen respectively and are adorable. From their jockeying or deflecting attention at career day, their bedroom conspiracies or most piercingly-their harmonies, these girls have your sympathies and rapt attention the entire evening. Dot is searchingly on the lookout for approval and affection, Betty is strong, brusque and can level you with a deadpan stare or line and Helen becomes withdrawn and soulful. All sing beautifully together and separately.
In the liner notes to his daughter’s album, Arthur writes “’The Shaggs’ are real, pure, unaffected by outside influences. Their music is different. It is theirs alone. They believe it, live it…” he goes on defensively for 5 or 6 more sentences before concluding with “They are happy people and love what they are doing. They do it because they love it.” Bridge Street Theatre has built itself into an essential stop in Capital Region Theatre and this is a great, messy, intimate production of a work that speaks to the heart of every artist in a way that compels laughter, admiration, respect and love. Their next production is a World Premiere of a play I’ve never heard of, “Bitter.” I couldn’t be more excited.