It is easy to look back on the 60s and see bright colours, free love, and an exploding music scene. And in thinking of the music of the 60s, it is really easy to name successful female musicians: Carole King is the obvious name, but also lots of groups like The Ronettes, The Shirelles, The Supremes, The Chiffons, etc. But was it really all candy and bubblegum and poofy hairdos? girl group takes us back in time and behind the scenes to examine the very real challenges and harsh realities faced by female musicians in the 60s.
Carol Critchley‘s play recounts the story of The Furies, a girl band with a difference — these girls play rock and roll, not bubblegum pop; they write their own songs and they play their own instruments. But the music industry of 1965 is not a friendly place for serious female musicians, and the producer who signs them views them as a novelty act, in which they are the interchangeable, pretty faces to put on the record sleeve, while the “real” (male) musicians do the real work. Each of the four Furies has a different idea of what it means to be successful, from fame to artistic integrity to having fun, and their separate ambitions pull them in different directions.
Reminiscent of a grittier, more rock’n’roll version of Dreamgirls, girl group is a well-produced piece. Ursula Bowden‘s set design makes particularly good use of The Lowry Lab‘s small stage. Her use of projected images on screens on either side of the stage allow the space to be transformed without set changes, which makes for smooth scene transitions. The story is brought to bright, musical life by a cast of seven, in which there are no weak spots. Lead ‘Fury’ Flo (Becka Linder) is brittle, defensive, and increasingly bitter as time goes by; her younger sister Ruby (Amanda Kay Thomm) is sweetly naive and optimistic. Laura Mahler gives a convincing performance as party-girl Winnie who just wants to have fun, until the fun takes over her entire life, and Katia Cardenas makes a compelling Cecy, the “pretty one” who wants fame and fortune above all. The four actors each portray their characters as sympathetic yet flawed, and it is easy to see the situation from any of their perspectives; the one you root for will have everything to do with your own views on the world.
girl group has much to say about the situation of women. They are clearly being dismissed by the music industry, personified by the aseptic hit-maker Renny Cordell (portrayed as a perfect sleazeball by Edward Linder), and on the one hand, the play makes it clear that just because each of the characters is a woman does not mean they has the same goals or interest. On the other hand, watching Renny’s wife Abigail (Tara Lucchino) hang her head silently while her husband rants about why women can’t be “real musicians” suggests that maybe instead of vying for what little power was available to them in the first place, the women ought to have been banding together to stand up to the Man.
If the play has any significant flaw, it is probably its pacing. The first act consists essentially of two lengthy conversations in which we get to know the characters in-depth, while the second act is divided into seven scenes spanning 20 years. Although Lisa Mangone‘s costumes do an impressive job of showing the passage of time, these scenes are so rapid that they feel like vignettes; brief glances at what happens. It feels more like a montage of “what happened after that” that may come at the end of a movie than it does the second half of a full story.
girl group is a very effective play. Much like the characters themselves, by the end of the show, the audience finds itself longing for the “early days” when The Furies were bouncy, optimistic dreamers. Their destinies may be cliché, but it is important to remember that these stories are cliché because they are based on the true stories of so many women. Therein lies the heartbreak and the inspiration this play provides: heartbreak that the world was not kinder to these women, and inspiration to remember that it is women like Flo, like Cecy, like Abigail, who pushed back against societal pressure and made it easier for the women who followed them.
girl group by Carol Critchley produced by Theatre Unbound at The Lowry Lab, 350 St. Peter Street in downtown St. Paul. April 13-28, 2013. Tickets $15-25 (including two “pay-what-you-can” performances on April 18 & 25). Box office: 612-721-1186 http://www.theatreunbound.com