BWW Reviews: Spirit of Broadway's DANI GIRL is Moving, Surprising and Funny
Dani Girl is quite simply the most fun musical you will ever see about childhood cancer! Yes, you read that correctly. I'm as surprised typing it as you are reading it. If there is one subject that seems like it would be ill-suited for musical comedy, it would be childhood cancer. Well, 9/11 and beating kittens are close, but a singing trip to Dana Farber??? But here it is: Dani Girl, currently running at Norwich's Spirit of Broadway. Don't let the inherent downer that is leukemia keep you from seeing this musical as you will likely be hard-pressed to find a show that is more original, smart, charming and creative this year. And, yes, I know it is January, so it is a bit early to be making this statement.
Spirit of Broadway's Founder/Artistic Director Brett A. Bernardini has a knack for unearthing some worthy (yet oddball) pieces and rescuing them from obscurity. I'm thinking specifically of last season's Boy in the Bathroom, a toe-tapper about an agoraphobe. While the O'Neill Center, Yale Repertory Theatre and Goodspeed Musicals all offer chances for musical-theatre neophytes to workshop a new idea, Spirit of Broadway actually mounts these daring shows. That says a lot about this company's risk-taking nature. Any theatre putting on a musical about childhood cancer has to be out of its mind, but yet it works.
The title already hints at the cock-eyed approach of its creators, Chris Dimond and Michael Kooman. If there is one song guaranteed to get everyone crying at a funeral (particularly an Irish wake), it is the three-hanky weeper "Danny Boy." With a title character named Danica, a 9-year-old hospitalized for a second round of chemotherapy, the puns begin with a title based on a song famously associated with death. The show is anything but maudlin.
Trapped in a sterile hospital room, hopelessly cheered up with a cute comforter and stuffed animals, Dani's leukemia has roared back. While her mother turns to her Catholicism for solace, Dani turns to her guardian angel Raph (the archangel Raphael, whose name roughly translates from the Hebrew to "It is God Who Heals") to play games with her. The games begin to take a darker turn as Raph more frequently metastasizes into a physical manifestation of her cancer. Dani gets a companion on her journey when a boy, Marty, is moved in to share her room and her flights of fantasy.
Anne Fowler plays Dani to perfection. Although probably twice the age of her character, Fowler achieves the perfect balance of innocence and precociousness that the role requires. A cloying child actor easily could have the audience wishing that little Dani got whisked off to Heaven halfway into the show, but Fowler nails it. Rob Grgach portrays Raph, Dani's guardian angel, and underplays the role nicely. This is no mean feat as he is handed songs like "Trivial Pursuit of Death," "Comaland" and "God is Dead."
Lara Morton is touching in the role of Dani's hyper-religious mother and displays a unique singing voice reminiscent of Betty Buckley. The least showy and humorous of the parts, Morton rescues the role from being a total downer in "The Sun Still Rose."
Rounding out the cast is Erik Jonathan Shuler as Dani's similarly cancer-stricken roommate. Shuler possesses a striking voice and a fun physicality, but here I go again. It is time for Uncle Jacques' Acting School to ring the bell on this issue and I can tell this is going to be an annual thing. If you are an adult playing a child in a show, it does not mean that you over-exaggerate everything. This does not make you seem like a child - it makes you seem like you are brain-damaged. Shuler ends up braying like a Weehawken housewife . This may not be Shuler's choice as much as misdirection in Bernardini's otherwise assured production, but it is distracting. Dialing it down by 50% would make the performance spot-on.
Minor gripe aside, Dani Girl is exceptional with lovely songs, witty lyrics, humor galore and makes one not so scared of cancer. That is quite an achievement and worth a trip to Spirit of Broadway.
Photo of (l to r) Anne Fowler and Erik Jonathan Shuler by Greg Solomon.