Laura Kwait Glazer
Children's Theater of Madison's The American Girls Revue™ 2016-2017
Children’s Theater of Madison opened its 2016-17 season at Overture Center with a remount of The American Girls Revue, a musical that features stories about six of the doll company’s historical characters, framed by six modern-day girls who are inspired by them.
The highly acclaimed production, which runs through Oct. 23, was originally directed by Milwaukee’s quadruple threat Molly Rhode, and retains the energy, inventive staging and choreography, and strong musicianship that made the show a success in 2011. The uniformly talented cast of young performers hits their marks and their high notes like pros, keeping the swiftly paced, entertaining piece moving along so that the intermission-free 70 minutes fly by.
A cynical observer might assume that the piece by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford is simply a slick advertisement for $115 dolls, but that is emphatically not the case. Originally commissioned by American Girl to be performed in the theaters at its flagship stores in Chicago and New York, the tuneful musical intelligently presents key vignettes from the award-winning book series about girls of different ethnicities and eras.
Appropriately, the stage is composed of platforms painted to look like oversized, brightly colored books that contain the stories of each character. (The clever, spare and flexible set was designed by Tiffany Fier.) Scenes are presented earnestly with the help of a few red chairs and key costume pieces that are hung on coat racks at the sides of the stage.
Each of the characters faces difficult choices and learns important lessons: In 1824 Josefina (a poised Emma Dias) learns about taking responsibility for her actions when she breaks her aunt’s precious medicine jar. In 1864 Addy (a strong Laetitia Howard) escapes slavery with her mother, in search of freedom in the North. In 1904 Samantha (a graceful Alice Wenzlow) learns about women’s suffrage and speaks out against dangerous child labor practices. In 1934 Kit (perky Saskia den Boon) understands how to “make do with less” when her father is unemployed during the Great Depression. In 1944 Molly (a loveable, nerdy Olivia Foght) realizes that looking like a movie star isn’t as important as simply doing her best in the big Red Cross talent show. The tap-dancing number featuring the whole cast is an impressive finale to a show filled with bright moments.
The young women carry the show, with help from four adult performers (Wendy Jones Hill, Eva Nimmer, Bria Cloyd and Jake Caceres), who each assume the multiple roles as inspiring or adversarial forces in the stories. Cloyd, in particular, stands out as Tia Magdalena and Momma — her strong singing voice resonating beautifully through the Playhouse.
While a group of girls singing about being brave and true, being a good friend, trying their best and daring to dream could easily come across as saccharine and simplistic, that’s not what’s happening here. The characters are presented in complicated historical moments, grappling with lessons that are equally applicable to today. The script does not talk down to the audience; it inspires. And given the state of our national political conversations, there may be no better time to encourage young women to stand up for what they believe in, and refuse to be belittled, ignored or objectified.
Full disclosure: I worked for American Girl in the marketing/communications department for four years before the company was bought by Mattel in 1998.