This may sound like heresy in the penny-pinching theater world, but “Girl Gang” needs to hire some additional help. A winking musical about a 1950s “clean teen” who finds herself in a reform school for fallen young ladies, the show boasts several good ideas, a couple of clever songs and a subversively relaxed attitude about gender-specific casting. However, with one person making most of the creative choices, these strengths succumb to unchecked impulses.
The person in question is Mark W. Knowles, who serves as book writer, director, set designer, co-choreographer and supporting actor.
His work is unfocused in all areas, though his book fares best. Working with composer-lyricist David g. Smith, he crafts a tone that hovers between sincerity and camp. When we meet virginal teenager Didi (Jodie Bentley), she’s languishing in an apartment where her uncle (Richard Butler) abuses her and her aunt (Dan E. Campbell) pretends not to see. The threat feels real, but the scene is complicated by Campbell’s fright-wig drag and the characters’ old-fashioned language. It’s funny, yet it isn’t, which is how dark comedy should play.
Gender ambiguity continues when greaser-boy Reggie beats up Didi’s uncle. The thug is obviously played by an actress (Amy Russ), so it’s as if Didi is escaping to an underground world where the rules about sex have been called off.
Smith’s score echoes that allure. His slinky, jazz-style songs invite our attention without begging for it, and though they sometimes sound the same — and make one too many grammatical errors — they are generally hummable fun.
Credit must also go to Knowles for the number “Le Chat Noir,” which intertwines a performance at a Beatnik bar with the hit-and-run accident that sends Didi to reform school. His choreography, staging and performance as a club singer all create a cinematic effect — as though we’re cross-cutting between scenes when he steps from a bar table onto the hood of Reggie’s car. When Knowles’ character is run down, it’s like Reggie has wounded the culture that offered Didi hope.
Soon, though, the narrative clarity is gone. The plot becomes a confusing mish-mash of bad girls, a doctor (Paul Niebanck) who wants to sleep with them, and a warden (Butler, in drag) who dabbles in drug-running and forced prostitution.
By the conclusion, Knowles’ book and direction implode. Most glaringly, his tone becomes so indecipherable that he seems to want genuine sympathy for a scene in which Didi and her lesbian friend Myra (Jaye Maynard) wrap a sweater around a tree and sing to it as though it were their dead friend Itchy (Marnie Baumer). Meanwhile, Itchy’s ghost comes up behind them, cradling the baby she aborted years before, and sings harmony. Jokes like that aren’t funny when the creatives don’t get them.
At least Bentley’s perf offers something to cling to. She lets Didi’s intelligence shine like a beacon, showing us a girl whose adolescent confusion never keeps her from knowing what’s just. Eyes sparkling, she pushes through one tough situation after another, and her good-natured determination makes it easy to cheer her on. With a lovely singing voice to match, thesp provides this wobbly tuner with its most winning constant.