Review by Tamara CAcchione
Exciting professional caliber community theater is alive in the Catskills, where the Bridge Street Theatre is embracing and including community in new and enchanting work. Taking on their first full-scale musical, Artistic Director/ Director/ Designer John Sowle and musical director Michelle Storrs chose no small task – opting for a piece that includes complex harmonies and rhythms, serious topics, and masterful musicians and movers. Bridge Street Theatre took on a beautiful, challenging, full scale musical that is rarely done, and deftly achieved a production that is not to be missed. It is refreshing to come in to the theater in anticipation of seeing work that is new and unfamiliar to even the most avid musical theater fan. It was rewarding to see how excellently it was executed from a complex and comprehensive range of emotions from the cast, to a talented band, as well as sets, period-appropriate costumes (by Michelle Rogers), and lighting that supported and enhanced the bizarre world of The Shaggs. What remained with the audience after the production, however, was a satisfying and successful community theater experience. Director John Sowle used a cast comprised of equity and professional actors (including a cast member who originated a role in the California workshop and has been in every incarnation thus far), as well as recent and current students from Catskill High School.
This diverse and talented group of actors took the audience on the journey of three sisters from New Hampshire following their father’s dream of creating a band. Based on the true story of the band The Shaggs, this production explores what happens when one man tries to find a purpose and will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. In this case, Austin Wiggins, the girls’ father, sacrifices everything (with the support and help of his belabored wife) in order to help his daughters become the next Beatles. Unfortunately, when he comes up with this idea, the girls have no musical experience, little talent, and a yearning to continue to explore their own lives and dreams, as opposed to their fathers. Circumnavigating a decade of the family’s lives, the story jumps from eras and locations smoothly and seamlessly using a set that can be adapted through lighting and turntables and simple yet strong props. Everything is used to the fullest- it seems as if each prop and move is deliberate and important to the story that is unfolding, and with so much information to obtain, so much pain and the development of 5 family members throughout the Shaggs’ budding career, this is no small task. Under the direction of John Sowle, one experiences the haunting and touching challenges of a family who make large sacrifices to try to achieve the dreams of a loving, if misguided patriarch.
The story and the music are catchy and moving, with haunting harmonies that highlight some of the emptiness and desolation that that the characters feel in some of the darker times. At other moments, the rousing songs bring laughter and celebration to the atmosphere. The only downside to watching a rarely done work is that an album of the songs is not available on iTunes, and after the performance, one wants to hear the songs again and again. Choreography by Marcus McGregor further enhances the energy in songs such as the opening when a cast of characters in choir robes dances around singing one of The Shaggs’ songs. A song about career day takes a delightful turn as cast members dance with chairs, microphones, and each other, highlighting the chaos of a formal day turned into a joyful riot. A grocery store transforms into a magical romantic imaginary playground for daughter Helen (the stunning Meeghan Darling) as she postulates on budding love, replete with being rolled gracefully around the stage while standing in a shopping cart as posters convert to signs of love and shoppers subtly dance amongst the aisles of the store.
Playing the optimist at all costs, the father of the Wiggins sisters is the dynamic Steven Patterson. From the moment Patterson came on stage, his energy and passion were inspiring. Patterson had the task of taking on an anguished man who, in his struggle to provide for his family, leads them towards more chaos and instability. With a strong voice, body language, and a pathos that adeptly displayed the journey of the girls’ father, he goes on a painful journey over the course of the musical. Subtly, and slowly, as he suffers setback and after setback, we watch him charge forward with what appears to be a reckless grasping at straws. This could only be achieved so poignantly by such a capable actor as Patterson. Originating this role in the L.A production, Patterson brings a passion for the part and the piece to the production that is evident in his performance.
Molly Parker Myers expertly portrays the girls’ mother, Annie Wiggins, as Annie falls into distress over the decline of her husband’s dream for the family. Myers’ clear voice and masterful grasp of humor was instrumental in creating a full and rich woman, who loved her husband and family at all costs.
As mentioned before, the cast is also comprised of younger people, both students and recent graduates of Catskill High School. Seeing this cast, one can’t help but feel excited for what these young actors might do in the future with the immense talent that they brought to the stage. However, if they do nothing else, and this is their last theatrical experience, they should be extremely proud of the range, level of skill, and poignant performances that were on display in this production, as they will remain with the audience for a long time to come.
Alexa Powell, as Dot Wiggin, was touching and authentic. Powell sang a heartbreaking song after being pulled out of school to learn music wherein she sings that she might not be her father’s favorite, but he’s her dad and she loves him. Powell nails the song, and makes the audience want to reach out and hug her immediately thereafter. Powell, a recent graduate of Catskill High School, hopes to continue her musical theater studies as she begins college in the fall, and one can certainly hope that she does so that we may see more performances from her in the future.
Amara Wilson, as Betty Wiggin, was a fiery tour de force as the most overtly rebellious sister. Wilson, with a rich voice and gift for humor, brought an energy to the trio of sisters that was exhilarating and a great relief at some of the darker moments.
Meeghan Darling nimbly took on the role of Helen Wiggin, who chooses to remain silent for an extended period of time, perhaps years. Darling has a beautiful voice, but she is equally as talented when she has no words, and we can see clearly exactly what she is saying with her face and body language. It is hard to believe that an actress this skilled and capable is about to enter 9th grade as she skillfully presents Helen Wiggin over the course of years of a long and complex life.
Magnus Bush is just delightful as he portrays the journey of Kyle Nelson, a classmate of the sisters, from a lovesick boy to a young man who has gone through a battle of his own. Magnus, another recent graduate of Catskill High School, has a strong voice and a keen ability for timing- emoting both humor and pathos adroitly.
Edward Donahue smoothly depicts various roles, including that of Charley, the unscrupulous record producer who asks for the Wiggin family’s life savings in exchange for a record. Donahue has a sleek voice and charm that enchants the audience.
Julian Broughton rounds out the cast, depicting 5 different roles, giving each one their own personality and humor, from the overwhelmed school principal at the local high school to the sound engineer reacting to the recording of The Shaggs’ first album, he dexterously fleshed out the world of the Wiggin family.
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World has been done several times, most recently at an Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizon in 2011. A version is coming to the big screen starring Steve Zhan and Allison Tolman. One should not wait, however, for the film, as this production is satisfying and enriching, leaving theater-goers enchanted and curious about the real-life Wiggin family.
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World is recommended for audiences ages 13+ and plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm from July 11 – 21, 2019 at Bridge Street Theatre, 44 West Bridge Street, in Catskill, NY. General Admission is $25, Students 21 and under are only $10. Discounted advance tickets are available at shaggs.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 800-838-3006. Tickets will also be sold at the door one half hour prior to each performance on a space available basis.
Tamara Cacchione is a director, performer, and theater instructor currently residing in the Hudson Valley. She is a proud founding member of The New Deal Creative Arts Center located in Hyde Park, NY.