Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Shafrika, the White Girl


By Anika Larsen. Directed by April Nickell. Jaradoa Theater at the Vineyard Theatre. (CLOSED)

Critics understand why singer/actor Anika Larsen thought her story merits a play--she was raised by hippies in a hugely multiracial family, and never "felt quite white"--but most don't think she's found the best way to tell it. Even those who mostly enjoyed the show point out that Larsen seems to shy away from the conflicts inherent in such a multicultural upbringing, and that this is a deficiency not compensated for by the show's play-within-a-play "metatheatrics."

Associated Press B+
(Jennifer Farrar) It takes a brave person to put their entire family on public display, complete with childhood photos and home movies. Yet that's what Anika Larsen...does in her energetic, autobiographical musical...She reviews her childhood memories with the aid of a purposely childlike, buoyant cast that portrays her siblings through the years...Although the musical could be tightened — less onstage discussion about the direction of the show itself, for instance — the Larsen family story is appealingly told. Aided by a live band led by Karl Mansfield, the singing and dancing are infectious. Larsen provides touching lyrics for six original, often personal songs, giving new meaning to the idea that life should be like a musical.

The New York Times B
(Neil Genzlinger) There are a number of things to admire...There is much humor here...But the show never quite shakes its self-congratulatory feel, and it suffers from an excess of sugar. The production is by Jaradoa Theater, whose stated mission is to create “theater that promotes mercy, beauty and truth,” and everything feels relentlessly upbeat. There is a natural drama to Ms. Larsen’s story — this feel-good family has troubles just like any other — but she refuses to let it assert itself; instead she adopts a play-within-a-play gimmick in which the other cast members have to drag the negative things out of her. As for the songs, delivered by the large cast with a “High School Musical” bounciness, some are original, some appropriated. The biggest surprise is that “Ebony and Ivory” somehow manages to be effective and not too smarmy. And in the end, despite the show’s flaws, you’re glad to have met this unusual family.

Backstage B
(Leonard Jacobs) Co-conceived and directed by April Nickell, Shafrika trades on a wearingly ubiquitous device: metatheatrics. The sparkling, high-energy 17-member cast plays each member of Larsen's family except for Larsen, and a fair chunk of the evening involves how the cast hijacks Larsen's ideas for a show that would explore the challenges of coming of age in such an unusual, enlightened household. The cast often illustrates—and truncates—many of the anecdotes she relates, with Larsen shuttled to the sidelines. Interspersed throughout the evening are songs—some original, some not—that aren't intended to thrust the narrative ahead but punctuate it. This can be very hit-or-miss...I yearned for more inspired musical moments...Larsen writes in such a way that it feels spontaneous whenever a cast member leaps up offering to play this sibling or that parent. And with large photos of her siblings in frames along the back wall of Josh Zangen's utilitarian set (nice projections by Ben Demarest), interest in every child's background never diminishes.

Variety B-
(Marilyn Stasio) Quick, somebody -- write this woman a show, so she won't waste her gifts on another do-it-yourself project like this one...{It] may be politically worthy as community theater goes, but Larsen is a natural-born musical force who belongs on Broadway...According to the show's awkward premise -- that Anika needs a fresh perspective to tell her story -- the narrative is hijacked by ensemble members representing her brothers and sisters. They can sing, they can dance, and in the case of a few performers like Lawrence Stallings, they do it on a professional level.

CurtainUp B-
(Gregory Wilson) The show itself has its share of musical numbers, though at times these seem more tacked on to the framework of the story than an integral part of the production. None of the songs are memorable. Still, the performers take on both music and drama with gusto and their commitment is one of Shafrika, the White Girl's best features. Director April Nickell let her cast find its own way and as a result the production crackles with energy, with enthusiasm that's is contagious so that I really did find myself enjoying the fun the actors are clearly having. Larsen in particular is talented and delightfully engaging...I keep coming back to the story, which is fitting, since it's both Shafrika's greatest strength and its most disappointing weakness. As interesting as Larsen's tale is, it just doesn't work very well as a theater piece.

Theatermania C+
(Adam R. Perlman) The main problem is that Larsen doesn't know how to handle the contradictions inherent in family life; for example, how can people love and yet hurt each other or how you can be on the inside and outside at once? Larsen's confusion has led to a show that's not so much about this legitimately unique family as about her processing it. We watch as she relives her memories and thinks aloud about them. True, Larsen and director April Nickell stage those recollections with what they think is vibrancy...The sharp and scary edges of the memories are dulled to the point they all register as a big "so what?" Surely, Larsen must have had memories more fraught than solving the mystery of who wrote on the living room wall...Larsen seems to shrink from the limelight...Still, when she sings, Larsen is a different person. Her voice is large, powerful, and sure, but her big musical turns are few and far between.

AP B+ 11; NYT B 10; BS B 10; Variety B- 9; CU B- 9; TM C+ 8; TOTAL: 57/6=9.5 (B/B-)

1 comment:

Dorian said...

I saw Larsen when the Avenue Q tour came to Toronto, and i have to say she impressed me. It's a shame this show is getting rather tepid reviews (if I were in NY, I'd probably want to see it anyway, but sadly I'm not!)