Review - 'Getting My Act Together' Surfs Feminism's Second Wave
The second wave of feminism not only brought issues of reproductive rights and social inequality into the forefront of American conversation, it also produced the first hit Off-Broadway musical completely written by women.
With its non-traditional form, smoothly integrated pop/folk score and up-to-the-moment themes of gender issues, Gretchen Cryer (book and lyrics) and Nancy Ford's (music) 1978 I'm Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road, was enormously hip and up-to-date when it premiered at The Public. And while the issues it addressed have certainly not been resolved, Kathleen Marshall's sparkling concert mounting for Encores! Off-Center reveals it to be a rich and informative backwards glance into the way feminism was being voiced to the general public thirty-five years ago through popular culture.
The entire ninety-minute piece takes place on a New York cabaret stage where a semi-famous singer/songwriter namEd Heather is rehearsing a new collection of songs she intends to premiere in a concert tour opening that night. Heather's biggest hit, recorded early in her career, was a pretty ballad called "In A Simple Way I Love You," with a lyric that expresses selfless devotion to a lover. Though the song only hit #89 on the charts, it has since become a popular choice at wedding receptions.
But it's Heather's 39th birthday and divorce, single motherhood and exposure to the women's movement have molded her into a different person; one who wants to use her art to speak to the women in her situation and to the men who don't understand why changes are needed.
But songs like "Smile" (about the expectation for women to be pretty and pleasant), "Strong Woman Number" (about female empowerment) and "Miss America" (about a former beauty queen's disappointing life) freak out her manager/ex-lover/closest friend Joe, who has just flown back from Los Angeles with news that he expects a lot of important people in the music industry to be attending tonight. Not only is he afraid of this new material alienating fans who came to hear old favorites and offending the men who can orchestrate her comeback, the lyrics also strike emotional chords reminding him of problems in his own marriage.
Though all of the songs in the score are sung as performances, rather than having the characters sing in traditional musical theatre fashion, Cryer skillfully makes each lyric relate to emotions brought out in the book, using them to feed the audience information about Heather and Joe's personal and professional relationship. At first Joe seems like a stereotypical male chauvinist pig, always referring to Heather as "sweetheart" and treating her female backup singers with casual sexism, but Cryer gives him a monologue that defines him more as a product of his time, not understanding the changes in gender relationships happening around him. And when Heather sings him the score's most beautiful song, "Old Friend," after saying that he was its inspiration, it lets us known that she sees what's good in him, and that perhaps she would want a future with Joe if he could see her standing beside him as an equal.
Renee Elise Goldsberry and Frederick Weller do an excellent job of making Heather and Joe's mutual affection for each other simmer beneath their frequent clashes. Goldsberry, in the showcase role, is just sensational recreating the feel of strong female pop singers of the era (people who actually sang the notes), exuding stage charisma and a sex appeal that comes from intelligence and confidence. But when the character is off-stage, she shows the frustration and fear Heather feels, having chosen to take a huge professional risk. Even while defending her choices against Joe's objections, Goldsberry shows us that Heather really cares about gaining his support. Her performance of the touching "Old Friend" is breathtaking in its heartfelt sincerity.
Weller does a fine job keeping Joe from coming off as just an obnoxious pig, showing real concern that someone he truly cares for is about to sabotage her career. Backup singers Christina Sajous and Jennifer Sanchez give terrific, energetic performances. Chris Fenwick leads the onstage band, which includes Jason Rabinowitz as a young musician with a crush on Heather, sweetly serenading her with her own hit song.
Encores! Off-Center premiered two weeks ago with Marc Blitzstein's legendary protest musical, The Cradle Will Rock, but I'm Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road is also very much a protest musical that rings true to the musical voice of its era. Some of its dialogue may seem a bit didactic to a 21st Century ear, but you can't fault a pioneer for not taking the most direct and effective trail. After all, you've come a long way,