The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

The Shaggs barely registered a footnote in rock 'n' roll history books until the sister act's lone 1969 recording started earning holy grail status from outsider-music aficionados during the last two decades. The Wiggins sisters' story, told with impeccable attention to known details by Joy Gregory, and their naive approach to music-making is fine fodder for retelling.

The Shaggs barely registered a footnote in rock ‘n’ roll history books until the New Hampshire sister act’s lone 1969 recording started earning holy grail status from outsider-music aficionados and experts during the last two decades. The Wiggins sisters’ story, told with impeccable attention to known details by Joy Gregory, and their naive approach to music-making is fine fodder for retelling — beyond this musical, in the works for three years, Artisan optioned Susan Orleans’ 1999 New Yorker article on the band and now is casting the pic. But in “The Shaggs,” the happy-go-lucky nature of this tale about a father using his teen daughters to cash in on a fad ventures into dark and ominous territory, morphing into a story of paternal domination instead of staying with the fun found in playing rock ‘n’ roll songs about the lost family pet. Production is made all the more menacing by Steven Patterson’s portrayal of seething Wiggin patriarch Austin.

Considering the jubilant isn’t-that-odd quality of the Shaggs’ fame and the attraction for its cult audience, it’s curious that “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World” would give such a strong voice to the turbulent undercurrent of their story. The Wiggins sisters wrote and recorded songs that twisted the rules of rhythm, harmony and melody, appalling the producer and engineer recording them yet somehow piquing the interest, years later, of rock critics, Frank Zappa and NRBQ’s Terry Adams.

That their father felt they could compete with artists on Top 40 radio was his folly; the first act explains their redefinition — the teens remain bumpkins whose primary duty is to obey their father — through several bubbly numbers that keep the tone frothy and playful. Getting booked regularly to play dances at the town hall in their hometown of Fremont, N.H., is an inexplicable oddity — and when they do so in the tuner, the act is pelted with junk.

In this presentation, though, the girls fail their father — they never even play the tune “Philosophy of the World” well enough to meet his expectations. From his perspective, Austin has given them everything to make them pop idols, having his wife home-school them so they can spend time practicing on the two guitars and drums he bought them, ostensibly as a birthday gift to Helen (Hedy Burress).

During the second act, when we start to see the difference between their atonal reality and his queer perception of their musical ability, Austin is an enraged man — angry with his family, the townsfolk, his employer, his wife, Annie (Laura Lamson), and the two people he knows operating in the margin of the music business.

“The Shaggs” loses its sense of humor in act two, starting with a hell-and-brimstone musical rant (“Austin’s Howl”) that feels out of place at the moment but holds steady as anger consumes Austin. Fear, on the other hand, drives everyone in his life. Drummer Helen grows mute, Dot (Jamey Hood) aims to please and Betty (Sarah Hays) longs for a way out, whether it’s pregnancy or a tank of gas. The undertone is abuse.

Tuner opens and closes in 1980 when Rolling Stone magazine declares the reissue of their album certifies the Shaggs as comeback band of the year. And as they gather to watch their house burn in a controlled fire, the morose expressions seen on their record jacket have turned further south — their father seemingly wore them out and made them too tired to hate. It’s a bum note to close out a tuner. There’s no epiphany.

Burress delivers the most affecting performance as she goes from timid to lost in portraying Helen. In truth, Helen was the oldest, though here she’s the one most in need of a parenting. Her singing voice is a thing of beauty and she sells a song better than any of her cast mates. Her sisters’ characterizations have less depth: Hood plays Dot as the reliable one willing to take direction, while Hays plays Betty as perpetually pissed off. Entire cast finds the application of nasal New Hampshire-Maine accents a bit slippery.

Laura Lamson convincingly cowers as mom Annie, and her big number, with lyrics culled from schoolbooks, pinpoints the confines her lack of an education created. Her helplessness leaves the girls with nowhere to turn except their doozy of a dad.

The role of Austin explodes in Patterson’s portrayal, growing so wicked that Patterson takes him out of Fremont and drops him off in Cape Fear. Patterson, a T-shirt, jeans and bulging muscles kind of guy, is allowed to growl, bark and threaten. The more the kids run for cover, the less fun “The Shaggs” becomes to watch.

The only other male figure in the girls’ life is Kyle Nelson (Rob Moore), who befriends the sisters and eventually marries Helen. His presence is crucial — it suggests they weren’t complete loners — but his awkwardness never eases even after he establishes his relationship with Helen. Moore’s vocals could be stronger.

John Langs’ direction has a bright professional edge, even if it, too, shifts tone dramatically from act one to two. In the first, he creates the feeling of an underpopulated “Hairspray”; act two is so dominated by Austin and his Stanley Kowalski-like rage that Langs appears to only effect a feeling of terror in the people around him.

Gunnar Madsen does a fine job arranging the Wiggins’ “Philosophy of the World” and the Gregory-Madsen tunes all move the story at a genial pace. The music is, for once, solid rock ‘n’ roll that hints at the 1960s but, like the tunes of the Shaggs themselves, has a nonspecific, timeless quality.

The flexibility of Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set is spectacular, though he makes the rundown Wiggin home more country shack than collapsing colonial. Len Levitt’s puppets of the Shaggs look great and behave admirably; it’s a great device to get the original recordings into the show.

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

Inside the John Anson Ford Theater, Los Angeles; 87 seats; $22 top

  • Production: Powerhouse Theater Co. presents a musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Joy Gregory, music by Gunnar Madsen. Directed by John Langs. Choreography, Ken Roht.
  • Crew: Sets, Brian Sidney Bembridge; lighting, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; costumes, Dianne K. Graebner; sound, Robbin E. Broad; music director, David O; puppets, Len Levitt; production stage manager, Emily Dias. Opened, reviewed Nov. 7, 2003; runs through Dec. 14. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Helen Wiggin - Hedy Burress Betty Wiggin - Sarah Hays Dot Wiggin - Jamey Hood Annie Wiggin - Laura Lamson Kyle Nelson - Rob Moore Austin Wiggin - Steven Patterson Charley Dreyer, Bobby, Vincent, Drum teacher - Joe Fria Mr. Wilson, Hank, Russ Hamm, Floyd, Minister, policeman - Hubert Hodgin