Jilly Manilly (written by Carl A. Fischer and Walt F. Strasser; directed by Patricia Woolsey) riffs on the Milli Vanilli lip-syncing controversy of the late 80’s. Scout Records Owner Mark Franklin (Kelsey Saunders) has discovered a hot new vocalist named Valencia (Jahna Reed) who lacks stage presence, and sets up the vivacious Jilly Manilly (Shabreia Womack) as her lip-syncing public persona. The scheme begins to unravel as TV personality LaQuanda Rae, “Drag Queen Investigator” (hysterically portrayed by the incomparable Jase Parker), begins to smell something fishy. The play stars members of local award-winning Female R&B/POP Group MAIN GIRL (Reed, Womack and Demetria Millard). These ladies are the real deal. They have the moves and the voices to carry them to stardom!
The creators of Jilly Manilly are on to something really big in forging a “Pop Music Play” genre, but like the rock musical genre, the form would seem to require that musical numbers (at least occasionally) serve to further the plot, and that lyrics are clearly understood. I think it’s fair to say that the play is a work-in-progress, and a great joy of the Fringe festival is a chance for audiences to catch a first glimpse of a show on the ground floor of creative development. Truth be told, the opening scenes of Jilly Manilly are fairly rough and plodding. They suffer from long, silent scene changes that could be easily improved with the addition of transitional music. Opening with three lip-sync numbers in a row by Jilly doesn’t help to hook the audience, either. “All’s well that end’s well” in theatre, however, and the show eventually gathers momentum to build to an explosive and satisfying climax.
On the road to that glorious ending, there are a lot of bright spots along the way. There’s definitely a compelling story here waiting to be fleshed out. The songs (written by many artists, but primarily George Adusei and Yvette Williams) are legit and well produced. This cast is brimming with talent. Womack is a striking beauty with a mesmerizing stage presence; one reminiscent of young Beyonce’ Knowles in Destiny’s Child. Reed kicks the show into high gear when she reveals her live vocal prowess, especially when joined in duet by Millard. As Mark Franklin, Kelsey Saunders makes a Hollywood-quality leading man. The true star of the show is choreographer Camal Pugh, whose impressive work is flawlessly executed by Justin Green and Arrington Lassiter.
With further development, Jilly Manilli may well become the next big thing, and MAIN GIRL is undoubtebly destined for greatness. The material may be better served as a film, or by production in a more appropriate venue (no joke, there was a very realistic emergency siren effect in this production that momentarily panicked some audience members into thinking the Baldacchino Tent was falling down). If this play was written as a vehicle for MAIN GIRL, however, it does beg one question: would it not be wiser to devise a concept that allows them to sing, rather than lip sync for 80% of the show? This is the tough question one must ask when the encore song blows away every song that came before it.
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