Dani Girl is an original musical from the young team of Michael Kooman (music) and Christopher Dimond (book & lyrics), now at the beginning of a Toronto run co-produced by Talk is Free Theatre and Show One Productions.
Watching this show, I couldn’t help musing on the form of “the musical” and wondering about all the possible places that ambitious new composers and writers could take the medium. Dani Girl is a curious combination, simultaneously ambitious and conservative. Its music is very listenable, without anything radical or strange, while sounding like a lot of the musicals I’ve heard.
Even so, I believe Dani Girl is a very challenging creation, taking the musical places it has never gone before. And so while the unfolding story challenges the audience its score is wonderfully understated. Kooman shows the mastery of an old pro even though he’s very young, never letting his ego get in the way of Dani Girl, but always providing support, diversion, or whatever is needed at that precise moment and nothing more. If its musical score were also full of innovations (and it does have its share of passages in quintuple time) I believe it would be too much for an audience to handle.
How is it challenging? Nine year old Dani has lost her hair because she’s very sick and is possibly dying. We get to know her, her mother, a hospital room-mate, and assorted creatures of her wonderfully vivid imagination as she goes on a quest for the meaning of life: and her hair. It has to be a musical of course.
I suspect that Broadway has been hesitant, considering the sensitive subject matter, but I think Dani Girl will work at the box office once somebody gives it a chance there. In the meantime—while we wait for someone to produce the show in NYC—cities like Toronto get productions of Dani Girl, wondering about its eventual success.
I found myself musing about the casting choices. Of the four parts two are adult and two are children, although the “children” (who are perhaps nine years old) are played by young adults in this production. The music is probably too difficult for a child of that age, so of course we need young adults. But so much of this play is fantasy, the imaginative explorations inside Dani’s head, that we’re already in such an artificial world that we wouldn’t require such verisimilitude. By having cute young adults portraying children we have another layer of artifice whereby we can feel a little safer with this material, than if we were actually watching sick children onstage.
But we are indeed swallowed up in Dani’s world. Gabi Epstein (Dani) deserves credit for effortlessly pulling us into the world of this wonderfully articulate child that we care about from the beginning. Hers is a no-gimmick performance to match Kooman’s understated score, cutting to the chase.
Director Richard Ouzounian helps Epstein and company reconcile the high-energy extroversion you usually find in a musical, and the sensitive internal feelings that are at the heart of Dani Girl. Ouzounian honours the energy in the text, never allowing the piece to sink under the weight of its subject matter, while giving it a fair hearing.
One reason Dani Girl will likely be a huge success, (at least once people get to know it) is because it manages to be so powerful while employing a tiny cast, namely the Mother, Marty (sharing Dani’s hospital room), and Rafe, a third, more elusive figure, who plays many different males in Dani’s life.
Rafe is the real star turn in the piece, as varied as an impressionist or a good sketch comedian, including moments when he is both God and Evil Incarnate. Jeff Madden selflessly puts Rafe completely at the disposal of Ouzounian and Epstein, ready whenever he was required to suddenly inject life or humour or nastiness into the play, and then vanish into the woodwork. Rafe is the dark underside of Dani’s imagination, and a madcap contrast to the other three figures onstage, who signify people in Dani’s life.
Amanda LeBlanc as the Mother brings a seriousness that balances the prevailing tone of playfulness in the production, and some of the nicest singing in the show. Jonathan Logan joins Dani in her adventures as Marty, another sick child who quickly becomes an important part of Dani’s journey.
This is a small scale musical, employing a keyboardist (music director Wayne Gwillim) and percussionist (Jamie Drake) to populate the tiny space of the Passe Muraille Backspace with the many images of Dani’s fertile imagination. While the energy is high, the predominant texture is clean & clear, never obscuring the words or the emotions, which, when I consider the complexities of the subjects that Dani Girl undertakes, is an astonishing achievement.
I think anyone venturing into the world of Dani Girl may surprise themselves at how they respond to this remarkable piece of music theatre. I am expecting that once word gets around, the show will be held over due to high demand. I hope so, because I want to see it again.
Dani Girl 416-504-7529 www.artsboxoffice.ca
Here’s a sample–one of the songs that’s already become well known–from youtube. While the credit doesn’t mention it, I believe that’s none other than Kooman (pianist) & Dimond (page-turner) as part of the bargain!