BWW Reviews: DANI GIRL
You’ve got to hand it to New York writing duo Kooman and Dimond, who gambled on the unfamiliar and created something new and gutsy in the form of Dani Girl – a musical about a nine year old girl dying of leukemia. The subject matter is far from safe, and the decision to set it to music arguably even more daring, and yet the gamble pays off. Dani Girl is the touching story of a young girl battling terminal cancer with the help of an overactive imagination. The show opened last night in Toronto, and served as a reminder of the magic that can happen when talent collides with ambition in an effort to create something new.
In an age where the theatre market is saturated with revivals and musicals based on recycled material, a brand new show featuring original work is something to be celebrated. That said, the new and unfamiliar carries with it risk and doubts, which are thankfully assuaged in this well crafted production.
Dani Girl was first produced by Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie last year, and many of the cast and creative team return for its Toronto run. Gabi Epstein reprises her role as Dani, the nine year old girl who copes with her diagnosis and impending death through the use of elaborate games. Joining Dani on her journey is imaginary friend and guardian angel Rafe (Jeff Madden), plucky roommate Marty (Jonathan Logan) and her religious mother (Amanda Leblanc). Once again directed by Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian, the production aims to build upon its success last year and find a new audience in Toronto.
In the title role, Gabi Epstein delivers a heartfelt and touching performance as a young girl struggling to come to terms with her fate and understand ‘why is cancer?’ It’s a question that packs an emotional punch as audience members realize (alongside Dani) that no one really knows why cancer exists, or why certain people are afflicted. Gabi’s nuanced performance takes us back to what it was like to be nine years old, with a vivid imagination and unabashed curiosity. It’s not an easy task to play a character so young and so conflicted, but Gabi manages to draw the audience into both her real world and her imaginary one with ease.
This journey is enhanced by the supporting characters that are a part of Dani’s life. We are first introduced to Rafe (Jeff Madden), her imaginary friend and guardian angel. Rafe provides much needed comic relief, and engages Dani in a series of games designed to help her cope with her disease. For example, he transforms into a ParisIan Barber to give Dani a new “chic” look, and Dani emerges bald from the effects of chemo. As Rafe, Jeff Madden is responsible for tackling an impressive eleven roles as he transitions from guardian angel to whatever character Dani needs to help her understand what is happening to her in that moment of her journey. His range and versatility are to be commended – watching him shift from guardian angel to game show host to an evil tumour and back again is mesmerizing. Jeff skillfully gives each character special nuances, physical characteristics and personality traits so distinct that you almost forget they’re all being played by the same person. By the time we see him emerge as the final character (which I won’t reveal for fear of spoiling the surprise) the transformation is so complete that the previous characters are almost completely forgotten.
Adding to the fun and games is Dani’s hospital roommate Marty, a boy of similar age who is also dying of cancer and who arrives just in time to help Dani in the final stages of her journey. Jonathan Logan makes an adorably understated entrance, walking silently into the hospital room in pajama pants and blue socks carrying a tiny suitcase filled with typical boy toys and donning a Darth Vadar helmet. From the moment he first speaks to Dani there is a visible bond, strengthened by the chemistry between Gabi and Jonathan that no doubt began when they first originated these two roles in Barrie. Marty serves as a strong counterpart to Rafe, providing a more grounded playmate for Dani and helping her understand the importance of not going through her journey alone. Where Rafe brings over the top comical zaniness, Marty provides endearing and touching comfort. In a particularly heartwarming scene we watch as Dani thanks Marty for saving her life, only to have the boy protest that it’s ‘no big deal’. Watching Jonathan Logan it’s hard to believe that he’s actually in his twenties, as his mannerisms and boyish charm embody the spirit of a nine year old so well.
Finally, Amanda Leblanc rounds out the cast as Dani’s Mom, a deeply religious woman hanging on by a thread as she watches her young girl succumb to a horrible disease. Leblanc delivers an understated yet powerful performance, the effects of which aren’t fully felt until the very end of the show. For most of the production she comes in and out for small scenes, alternating between over-protectiveness (as evidenced whenever she tries to discourage Dani from playing more games) and guilt over the fact that Dani is going through her journey without a father. By the time her character really opens up there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, as she explains to Dani the real reason her father left when she was a baby. Leblanc’s delivery of her eleven o’clock number ‘The Sun Still Rose’ will win over even the most jaded of theatre goer, and it’s that song that also most clearly showcases the brilliant writing abilities of Kooman and Dimond.
Finally, I think it’s important to praise the humour in this production. It’s easy to assume that a show about a terminally ill child would be lacking in laughs, yet the biggest surprise of Dani Girl is the amount of laughter it creates. Somehow, this show manages to take very difficult subject matter and deliver it with honesty, humour and light. It is a joyous combination of in your face, over the top jokes and subtle one-liners that come together to tell Dani’s story in a way that leaves you strangely uplifted. Dani may not beat cancer, but her journey ends a rip-roaring success. And in that way, the story of Dani is very much the story of Dani Girl. In the end it takes you somewhere unexpected, and good or bad, you’re damn glad you took the trip.
When and Where?
Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace
16 Ryerson Ave., Toronto
February 16 – March 4, 2012
Monday to Saturday at 7:30PM (except Tuesday); Matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM
Tickets are $33 plus HST and service fee. They can be purchased through Arts Box Office at www.artsboxoffice.ca or (416) 504-7529
For more information please visit www.tift.ca.
From This Author Kelly Cameron