GIRL Shakes Loose: tight show, loose story

Penumbra Theatre, through May 14

GIRL Shakes Loose.

There are so many things right with the musical GIRL Shakes Loose at Penumbra Theatre. First off the show is nearly flawlessly performed. The depth of talent in our cities never ceases to amaze, as the cast of this show demonstrates. Alexis Sims, a mezzo-soprano with a wide range and great stamina, brings as much charm to the role of GIRL that anyone possibly could. And the music (by Imani Uzuri) and lyrics (by Imani Uzuri and Zakiyyah Alexander) hit some fine places in this coming of age story.

The show starts with GIRL having just arrived in Manhattan to the lyrics of “I am what I am (a woman alone amidst all the noise).” Not a bad beginning for a play about self-discovery and striking out on one’s own.

As the story unfolds, director May Adrales brings out the charming quirks in the supporting actors’ characters. The set (designed by Vicki Smith) holds some surprises as it unmistakably establishes the play’s three locations: NYC; small town Georgia; and Bay Area San Francisco. It is aided by excellent projections (designed by Kathy Maxwell).

The problem with GIRL isn’t the production—can’t imagine it being done any better anywhere else including NYC or the Bay Area—the problem is Zakiyyah Alexander’s book. The story is just not very compelling. The main character GIRL holds a magna cum laude bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree (we’re never told in what field) and her very own start-up company in the Bay Area. But her company failed after a few years and despite this impressive resume she has no real strategy for the rest of her life. She has returned to NYC where she went to college and camps out on friend’s couches.

We soon find out that while in San Fran GIRL had a hot, four-month romance with Ellie (Tatiana Williams). For no apparent reason GIRL left Ellie and she misses her terribly. For the rest of the play GIRL embodies twenty-something angst as she travels across the continent self-absorbed and dissatisfied with everyone who offers her love, friendship or a couch to crash on. When her friend James (John Jamison) sings “You’ve Got to Get Yourself Together” she snaps back, “You sound like my mother.” It isn’t easy to be twenty-nine and not know what you want in life, but there is just a bit too much whine in this heroine.

At times the disenchantment works well, as in “Spare Some Change” when GIRL rides the NY subway and in “Soy Milk” sung by her new roommate, Veronica (China Brickley). Possibly the best number in the show comes when GIRL reminisces over how good she had it in Oakland. The entire cast sings and dances through “This House” a number that makes you believe the Age of Aquarius is still just around the corner.

Overall this is an enjoyable evening out. If I tallied everything that I found lacking with the book in this likable musical I’d begin to sound like GIRL, never quite satisfied with anything despite life’s obvious pleasures. This is a fun evening with infectious choreography, enough music in various styles to fill a dance card twice over and a stellar cast even if they never quite get to go over the moon.

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