Immediately after a list of songs from the 50s and 60s by groups and singers I’m sure are unrecognizable to the average 30-some or younger audience members, the Bittergirls programme production summary promised “Audiences will howl in recognition at the fast-paced and heartbreakingly hilarious tale interwoven with their favourite hurting and loving girl-group songs.”
“Heartbreakingly hilarious” might sound like an oxymoron to you. After all, how can heartbreak be hilarious, especially after you’re dumped by a your boyfriend, or live-in partner, or husband for some really lame reason you know is not true? I’m sure any girl-woman who’s been through “the one big heartbreak” understands that, and has spent hours, days, maybe even weeks and months, listening to the saddest and most depressing love songs to remind them of the heartbreak. Of course, years after, in much better relationships and places, we find that period laughable, to say the least, assuming we got over it.
It’s precisely that point when we find it laughable that we’re able to enjoy this rib-tickling, belly-achingly hilarious production where we follow three bittergirls through their break-ups through songs, and what powerful and memorable songs they are! We laughed because we were mostly an audience on the higher end of the number scale and did we know those songs! I was telling my companions at our table at The Mack, that those who sang along would be giving away their age. I have to admit that I knew those songs and listened to them, not necessarily because I listened to them going through a break-up—well, okay, maybe one or two—but because I listened to them as a kid. Of course, anything by Burt Bacharach, Donna Summer, Dionne Warwick, or Elvis Presley would be familiar to even some of the younger audience, but whom among the younger generation would recognize The Supremes, The Crystals, The Three Degrees, etc.? Back then, group singers were a really hot thing and there would always be harmonization and vocal arrangements, so having three women who are all powerful singers belting out these songs in true Broadway style was a throwback to that time.
While the musical was really about the Bittergirls’ biggest breakups with songs describing exactly how they felt and dealt with their personal tragedies, Jay Davis, who played everybody’s heartbreaker turned out to be more of a charmer and a heartthrob who stole the scene from the girls each time he sang in true King-ly fashion, complete with gyrating hips atop his very own pedestal with full marquee lights and glittering belt. A more rowdy audience would have filled the theatre with catcalls, whistles, and howls, but it was enough to bring the house down with mirth. Still, it was definitely a girl-show, and to quote Sean Casey as repeated to me by his wife Kathleen Casey, “Men had better park their egos at the door” before they watched the show.
I loved Steffi DiDomenicantonio with her Liza Minneli-sh cropped hair and big dark, thick-lashed eyes and just as powerful voice singing through her abandonment by partner-who-found-another. Rebecca Auerbach played the martyred breadwinner-mom-woman who sent her husband through university only to be abandoned so he can pursue other dreams. Women in her place shouldn’t be allowed to play with Barbie and Ken dolls! To round off the trio was Marisa McIntyre, the girlfriend who dreamt of the perfect love story and happy ending but never got the proposal. While their voices all rose to the occasion, McIntyre’s stage presence was not always up to par with the other two girls. With the quick pacing and turnover of lines and songs, however, this was hardly noticeable. That these three energetic ladies could sing through dancing and, yes, an aerobics workout, left me gasping and exhausted from the exertion, not to mention amazed and in total awe. Choreographer Nicola Pantin outdid herself there.
That the production entertained the audience thoroughly is completely undisputed. The one thing that would have increased my enjoyment would be a better modulation of the mics for the small space that The Mack is. Perfect miking means no echoes and no picking-up of each other’s voices—which happened in more intimate scenes, such as the bedroom scene—so that the voices sound perfectly normal rather than enhanced by microphones. McIntyre’s mic, in particular, echoed more than the others, and when she hit some high notes, there was a tad bit of shrillness to the echo, which was a little jarring to the eardrums.
As for the story, I don’t think there was really meant to be much of a story as much as it was meant to poke fun at how girls tend to (over)react to a break-up, making it a major tragedy of catastrophic proportions—the equivalent of the first act, until, in the end, they realize that they will survive à la Donna Summers. It also poked at men, on the other hand, who are portrayed as egotistic and insensitive, and yet we do fall over, bend over, gush over, and agonize over them.
It was a delight to see the creators, Alison Lawrence, Annabel Fitzsimmons, and Mary Francis Moore, who came up on stage as they were introduced by past Artistic Director Wayne Hambly. I think the hardest part of the writing would have been to find the perfect songs to match their scripts and pull them together seamlessly into one supremely entertaining musical extravaganza with a story line. Kelly Robinson’s staging was flawless with maximum use of Cory Sincennes’s highly versatile set that optimized every nook and cranny of The Mack’s diminutive platform. I found the slide-out sets and hiding places a delight and waited to see what part of the set would reveal something different. I like the fact that Robinson utilized the audience area as well, which was somewhat symbolic of a breakout and a breakthrough in the stages of breakup. I’m not sure it was meant to work that way, but it does work, when one looks more closely for what is significant. If it isn’t in the original script, I think Sincennes’s set design and Robinson’s stage directions should become part of it.
One final word in parting, though, and it has nothing to do with the performance: it felt like the caterers did not want the food served at the gala reception to be eaten at all—there were no plates, the fillings were unidentifiable by sight alone, albeit delicious, and they were impossible to eat with fingers, but no forks or picks were provided. I think, for that reason alone, there was so much left after most of the audience had gone.
*Also available on onrpei.ca