‘Dani Girl’ at Unexpected Stage Company

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Dani Girl is a gem worthy of placement at the highest point in a royal’s crown. Go see it before it closes its brief run on August 10th! Every member of this musical’s cast and creative team deserves accolades.

Caroline Wolfson (DaniI and Joshua Simon (Raph). Photo by Dave Lewis.
Caroline Wolfson (Dani and Joshua Simon (Raph). Photo by Dave Lewis.

This musical about death and hope in the face of despair is, at its core, an often humorous tale of both the power and limits of imagination. Never does it veer towards being farcical. Dani (Caroline Wolfson) and her fellow patient and roommate, Marty (Zach Brewster-Geisz), use their imagination to search everywhere, from the insides of her stuffed koala bear to the heavens, for answers to life’s perplexing questions.

Each cast member could easily have pulled off a one-person show. If the only thing that happened on stage was Wolfson’s vocals, the evening still would have been a success. She projects the hopeful demeanor and exudes the belief that is necessary to make the audience’s imagination soar with hers.

Wolfson is joined, almost from the start, by Raph (Joshua Simon), her imaginary friend and guardian angel who turns out to not be what he seems.  Simon displayed the whole package of talent and skills necessary for success in musical theater. From the first moment he leapt on the stage attired in white pants, a pink shirt and pink and white butterfly wings, he had the audience in his pocket. His vocals, dancing, sarcasm and character sketches blossom early in his first solo, “Trivial Pursuit of Death.”

Brewster-Geisz’s sometimes zany and always touching Marty is introduced in “Why I Love the Movies.” He idolizes heroes such as Indiana Jones, Superman and Captain Kirk. Imagination allows him to feel he could have those same powers.

I loved when Marty convincingly turns his bed into a spaceship on which he and Dani have an eventful trip to heaven, only to be turned away by the gatekeeper, Darth Cancer, a less likable version of Raph. “Going to Heaven”showed the hopeful side of the endeavor while the second act’s “God is Dead” foretells the futility of hope.

Dani’s mother (Maggie Robertson) oozes both compassion and her own struggles to continue to believe in fairy tales and happy endings. When it is clear that Dani is dying, Robertson faces the impossibility of fairy tales coming true in her heart-wrenching song, ‘The Sun Still Rose.’

Set design, lighting and music were all palpable additions to the production. The set, by Kristen Jepperson, cleverly includes a room for the musicians that mimics what could be the nurses’station on the cancer ward.  It also allows conjoining spaces in which Dani and Marty can explore their own worlds and a large shared space in which their essential vulnerabilities are exposed. When one’s hope flags, the other’s rekindles it.

The integral role of the musicians in setting the tone was made clear by their placement on stage. Cellist Katie Chambers had a big role in setting the tone, especially when things turned poignant. Music Director and keyboardist Laura Brady subtly supported every song as did Vaughn Irving and Arielle Millers’soft percussion.

Lighting design by Peter ‘Zeke’ Dowty was like a physical force interacting with the characters. Though frequent, the changes in lighting further guided the momentum. Costume Designer Emma Duncan did a fabulous job with her designs of Josh Simon’s wardrobe. I only wish that that Dani and Marty were written as teenagers instead of 9 year old. The only tiny tweak I make is to change the ages of Dani and Marty to 16 or 18. Their sophisticated imaginations and interactions, at times, do not seem possible for even the most precocious nine year olds.

Unexpected Stage Company’s Co-Artistic Directors Christopher Goodrich and Rachel Stroud-Goodrich are wisely pairing the presentation of two are premiers that explore the intricacies and intimacies of the complete human experience. Dani Girl will be followed by the Washington  premiere of Danny Boy in October.

Caroline Wolfson (Dani) and Zach Brewster-Geisz (Marty). Photo by Zach Brewster-Geisz.
Caroline Wolfson (Dani) and Zach Brewster-Geisz (Marty). Photo by Kate Erin Gibson.

Written by Christopher Dimond (book and lyrics) and Michael Kooman (music) and directed by Christopher Goodrich, this is the musical’s first full length performance in the region. It has been in workshops at the foremost venues in the country and been presented around the world before its arrival here. My only question is, ‘What took so long?’

Running Time: Two hours, with one ten-minute intermission.

Dani Girl plays through August 10, 2014 at Unexpected Stage Company at Randolph Road Theatre – 4010 Randolph Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006, or purchase them online.

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LINK
Meet the Cast of Unexpected Stage Company’s ‘Dani Girl’: Caroline Wolfson, Joshua Simon, Maggie Robertson, and Zach Brewster-Geisz.

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