Friday, April 21, 2017

Getting Down with Girl Shakes Loose

"You're not supposed to know what you're doing with your life Girl - you're just supposed to live it!"

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

I'm just going to come out and say it: there are some really, really great things happening in our local theater community right now.

I mean the Twin Cities have always had a reputation for making and hosting great art, but there has been a bevy of wonderful, innovative stagings of late that are really reinvigorating my love of the arts. It's evident in my recent reviews of shows like Vietgone, Battlefield, Wicked and Booty and the Beast, and now I have one more rave to add to the pile: Girl Shakes Loose. A Janelle Monae album brought to vibrant life, Girl Shakes Loose is a lovely new piece that is redefining the modern musical and is a hell of a lot of fun to boot.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

I was so blessed to be able to attend the world premiere of this brand new musical last night, and I'm convinced that Girl Shakes Loose is one more step towards reinventing the modern musical. Set distinctively in New York City, Georgia, and San Francisco, Girl Shakes Loose chronicles the story of Girl as she wanders the country trying to discover what will fulfill her. A woman who has made a habit of running from her problems rather than facing them head-on, Girl encounters a series of bad experiences - seedy, bar-driven hookups, couchsurfing, an insufferable Brooklyn roommate, the death of her grandmother, coming out as bisexual to her own mother - until she finally realizes that her rash actions have cost her a relationship with the love of her life, which provides Girl with the rock bottom she needs in order to re-launch her life for herself. The show ends as Girl stands tall and strong, ready to face the world head on and accept happiness when she truly finds it.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

The cast is enormously talented and effortlessly guides us through Girl's journey. The trip is led by Alexis Sims who is masterful as Girl in what I believe is her first role at the Penumbra. Sims has a glorious voice that is a little Mariah, a little Michael and a little Carmen, and her wide range and approachable demeanor absolutely reels you into Girl's dysfunctional world. Jemecia Bennett is a knockout as Girl's Aunt Lucille, with a powerhouse voice that sears through the audience like a red hot fire iron. Bennett's voice is literal fire, and I could have listened to her sing all night. China Brickey is hilarious as Girl's granola roommate Veronica, with a smile for every scene and some necessary comedic relief. Tatiana Williams is smooth and sexy as Girl's lover Ella, lending the show a distinctly feminine sensuality that is all blues, all exquisite. And Thomasina Petrus envelops the audience with her rich, soulful voice as Girl's Mama, a dark but profound relationship that explains many of Girl's faults and insecurities once it is revealed.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

The men of the cast are no slouches either. John Jamison is magnificent as he serves in several roles, the most distinctive as the queer friend who hosts Girl when she is in San Francisco. Jamison has the strut of Ru Paul and the pipes of James Brown, and the only word to describe him is FIERCE. He was my favorite member of the cast to watch, and I hope we continue to see more of him in the future. Lamar Jefferson ignites the audience in a brilliant caricature of a Baptist preacher. And Kory Pullam is dynamite as Girl's high school sweetheart Eddie, with a seductive voice and explosive physicality in his every movement. This well rounded cast can do anything, and I hope they make a recording of the show; their dulcet tones melt perfectly into what is somehow simultaneously an unidentifiable yet perfectly familiar soundtrack, and they had me humming all the way home.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

The music is in fact the most distinctive element of Girl Shakes Loose, and yet even that is hard to pin down. There are so many varied influences woven through every track, and the "songs" aren't really songs at all but more periodic short focus points in the script that propel the action forward. The best way I can think is to break it into "moods." Girl Shakes Loose opens in the dirt, sweat and stress of New York City, where the bluesy feel of Billie Holiday runs smack into Destiny's Child. Act 2 follows Girl to Georgia, where Aretha goes to church with Chuck Berry and the cast swells between gospel inflected tunes and riotous rock and roll. Act 3, a brief stop in San Francisco, brings the electricity of Prince to Janelle Monae, with a little Michael Jackson and Beyonce sprinkled in between. You'll understand once you see the show, but it's at once a completely familiar sensation while simultaneously being something you've never heard before, a modern-day oratorio/hip-hopera that feels great and will leave you wanting more.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

The staging is straightforward but suggestive. New York is a flurry of flashing lights, car sounds, sweaty clubs and subways, and nomadic life. Georgia is richly drawn in Grandma's house with walls covered in mementos, a well worn kitchen and rocking chair, and a cleverly lowered set of church-going ladies' hats right before the funeral. San Francisco is a riot of projected graffiti, splashing waves and house parties. Costuming for the whole show is really fun, with every person wearing a distinct set of black clothes that they periodically arrange under quick tops or accessory changes. Girl Shakes Loose also has a judicious use of wigs, which I found to be fun (and made me wonder - why don't more shows use good wigs? Or maybe they do and I don't notice?). It's exceedingly simple but it really works, and you are never left feeling unstimulated or confused about who is who.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

I couldn't help but think of the word Millennial, so often used as a slur these days, as I watched this show. Girl Shakes Loose captures the quintessence of Millennialism in all its flaws and glories. A failed internet startup? Check. Bicoastal living? Check. Gender identities outside of a binary spectrum? Check. A gorgeously multiracial cast? Check. Feeling lost and inhibited by a poor economy and lack of sense of purpose? Check, check, check. All of these elements combine to provide a rich depiction of modern young adulthood, one that is vitally necessary as our generations continue to age. We can't brandish angry platitudes about Millennials forever - after all, someone has to replenish Social Security's coffers - so what comes next? How can we provide a place for those who are feeling overworked and underappreciated in the new post-recession economy? How can we help people find meaning in a world they increasingly understand to be hostile and hopeless, where their fears for the environment and their fellow citizens around the world feel wholly ignored? Girl Shakes Loose lends a vibrant voice to this conversation, and it's a pleasure to watch it unfold. It has me so excited for the future of musical theater, and I can't wait to see where this powerful artistic team takes us next.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

A female Bildungsroman for the millennial era, Girl Shakes Loose is replete with soul, heart, warmth, and raw energy. It's really worth a stop and keep your eyes peeled: I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more shows like this in the near future. Girl Shakes Loose runs at the Penumbra Theatre through May 13; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Also, don't forget - the Penumbra is celebrating their 40th anniversary! The Minnesota Historical Society is celebrating this incredible milestone with a new exhibit - see more info from my review here.