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BWW Review: TRANS AM at Keegan Theatre

Lisa Stephen Friday's autobiographic one-woman rocker gets a live world premiere

BWW Review: TRANS AM at Keegan Theatre

Lisa Stephen Friday could have presented the eight semi-autobiographical songs she worked up with her band Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday, just as she once did at a series of Lower East Side clubs in the 90s.

Instead, she's playing acoustic versions of them during a one-person show that serves up more than between-song patter ever could.

"Trans Am" is making its live world premiere currently at the Keegan Theatre, which previously developed the work in its Boiler Room Series, and then produced an online version in 2020 when streaming shows was the only option during the early days of the pandemic.

Now (with masks and proof of vaccination) it's getting that other element essential to its presentation - audience reaction and cheers after the songs.

Tall and confident in a jeans jumpsuit and red sneakers, Friday is unflappable in telling a about a life that had more than its share of challenges, not just as a trans woman finding a place in a cold world, but in overcoming heartbreak and alcohol dependence.

Friday is at least as well schooled in theater as she is in rock 'n' roll. After snaring a number of key gigs with the band, at Pride events and opening for acts from the Psychedelic Furs to Pat Benatar, she landed a role in the touring company for "The Buddy Holly Story," was encouraged to audition for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (a direct antecedent of this show).

Since then, she's become steeped in theatrical production, working tech everywhere from Williamstown to Signature to the Smithsonian.

She retains only the writer and performer credits on "Trans Am," though. The Keegan has had a steady hand on rock musicals in the past and here set designer Matthew J. Keenan created an MTV era stage where 11 screens flash and help set the scene (projections by Jeremy Bennett with Zavier Augustus Lee Taylor; lighting by John D. Alexander with Alberto Segarra). A couple of equipment boxes allow Friday to jump on them from time to time as the music requires. An array of guitars - acoustic, not electric - are at the ready as if at a band gig.

And while her old band gets a shout out in the program, only drummer Fred Berman is on hand. Since band days, he's moved from rock to theater as well - playing Timon on Broadway's "The Lion King" for a decade among other activities. But here, Berman is directing, playing a role not so different than he did backing Lisa in the band - setting a rhythm and finding a way to present her in the best light.

I brought some earplugs in case it really was a rock musical, but didn't need them. This was thoroughly acoustic versions of songs that may have sounded better electrified. Certainly the lyrics wouldn't have sounded as simplistic behind some riffs (few try to do Ramones songs acoustically for just that reason).

Simply the titles of the songs give a hint at the night's progress, from "Beautiful Freak" and "Mess" to "Don't Get Bitter," "Sober & Insane" and the concluding self-realization of "AOK."

Recalling an encounter with the groundbreaking Jayne County, Friday admits her "Hey Man" is pretty much a ripoff of the David Bowie's "Suffragette City."

But rock is like that; it's inspired by singular heroes and spun into something new.

Friday couldn't have had a more supportive audience than she did on a chilly opening night. Had it been a rock show, though, she surely could have led an encore.

Running time: One hour, 30 minutes with no intermission.

Photo credit: Lisa Stephen Friday in "Trans Am." Photo by Cameron Whitman.

"Trans Am" continues through Feb. 26 at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St NW. Tickets at 202-265-3767 or online. Masks and proof of vaccinations are required.

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