BWW Review: World Premiere of GIRL SHAKES LOOSE Triumphs at Penumbra Theatre

BWW Review:  World Premiere of GIRL SHAKES LOOSE Triumphs at Penumbra Theatre

This fresh new musical is a terrific addition to the American musical canon, a show a lot of us have been waiting for. It's a rare thing: the central character is a young African-American woman struggling to find her way in present day USA. Without oversimplifying her struggles with love, sexuality, and work, it takes us all along on her search for self. Tuneful, funny, and soulful, GIRL SHAKES LOOSE is decidedly contemporary while incorporating poetry from the great Sonia Sanchez, a shining light of the Black Arts Movement.

Thus it is entirely fitting that it premieres at Penumbra, one of the foremost African-American theaters in the USA, now celebrating its 40th season, the first under the full artistic direction of Sarah Bellamy, actress, activist, and daughter of Lou Bellamy, the founder of Penumbra. The creative team behind GIRL SHAKES LOOSE is headed by a powerhouse female trio of talent: Imani Uzuri, composer and lyricist; Zakiyyah Alexander, who penned book and additional lyrics; and director May Adrales. Both Uzuri and Alexander identify as African-American; Adrales is a first-generation Filipina-American.

GIRL SHAKES LOOSE traces the tangled late twenties of a well educated black woman to find the life she wants to lead. She successfully escaped the confines of a childhood in a small Georgia town, got herself a fancy education, and ran her own start up in the Bay Area for three years. She found family there, in a group house headed by the fabulous Luc, where the only rule is: Be Yourself. But her business imploded at about the same time that the unnamed Girl chose to flee commitment to a serious love affair with a woman: Ella.

We learn much of this in flashback, since Act I opens with Girl a hot mess, as one lyric puts it. She's depressed and couch surfing back in New York, a place she hates. Her friend James tries to buck her up with the sassy song "Get Yourself Together." She gets as far as finding a room to rent from Veronica, a killer parody of a white trust fund baby, vegan, given to reading people's energy and wearing Kente cloth, who tells her to "Always fill the Britta or I'll be pissed" in the terrific song "Soymilk." She tries to find a job in NY, only to learn, repeatedly, that "degrees don't pay the rent" in "Overqualified Black Girl." On the subway, she identifies with a homeless woman in "Spare Some Change" and fears that's her future. Then comes the call that her beloved grandmother has died; she's expected to get home to Georgia for the funeral.

Act 2 takes us back in Elberton, Georgia, the little town Girl fled, and gives us a chance to meet her first boyfriend and her high school galpals, plus hear the preaching and gospel singing of her hometown church. With the encouragement of her great aunt Lucille, she reconciles with her estranged Mama, and comes out to her as bisexual. The three women sing "Don't Never Give Up on Love" (poetry by Sanchez) and Girl decides she needs to head back to where she was happiest: Oakland, and Ella.

Act 3, the shortest one, continues to address the twin identity challenges GIRL (and all of us) face: love and work. But it doesn't succumb to easy closure. GIRL SHAKES LOOSE avoids the pat ending of the traditional romance narrative (bisexual version, here) so common in musicals, in favor of something more demanding and more believable.

The show requires a bold, sensitive lead who can sing with fervor and feeling up and down a big melodic and dynamic range. This production found her in Alexis Sims, who almost never leaves stage for the 2½ hour show. She is supported by a strong ensemble of eight additional singing actors, all people of color, who include folks new to the stage as well as veterans who have sung backup for Prince and Aretha. They perform as a chorus with complex harmonies and vocal stylings, as well as in specific roles. Standouts include Jamecia Bennett, in full control as Aunt Lucille, Thomasina Petrus as Mama and the Homeless Woman, relative newcomer John Jamison who struts his stuff as Luc with unforgettable flair, and Tatiana Williams, who blends tenderness with clarity in the important role of Ella.

The action is continuous and nearly sung-through, as staged by Adrales and choreographer Karen L. Charles. A few simple furnishings are moved on and off as required by the actors. Scenic designer Vicki Smith has left Penumbra's small thrust stage black and bare, but includes a turntable to enhance movement scenes and periaktoi at the back. These are projection friendly but double as scrims to hide the four musicians (piano, guitar, bass, drums) who support the singers. Sound designer John Acaerrgui found an effective balance so we get almost every word clearly. The projections provide ever changing backdrops. Sometimes in black and white, sometimes color, sometimes stills and sometimes video, ubiquitous but not obtrusive, they go a long way to support the storytelling here. Kudos to designer Kathy Maxwell. Lighting designer Paul Whitaker manages to keep distracting front light off the projections and also help focus attention where it needs to be.

Costume designer Trevor Bowen dresses the ensemble in individualized black, suited to each body type. Actors add distinctive pieces when in character as a specific person, and these are wonderfully diverse and expressive. Bowen's been helped enormously, as have the morphing actors, by wig designer Andrea Moriarty. I lost count of how many wigs are in use, but they do a lot to help us keep straight who is who when a single actor plays multiple roles.

This piece deserves full houses while in Saint Paul, and then multiple further productions. It's got plenty to offer audiences of all races: the character Girl is given that universal moniker rather than a personalized name for good reason. I hope that a time will come when it will be produced on college campuses, especially the more ambitious and adventurous of the HBCUs, in continuous rotation. If you want to be in on the first full production of what should become the next big thing, see GIRL SHAKES LOOSE at Penumbra. It's there until May 14.

photo credit: Allen Weeks

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