THEATER REVIEW | “Girl Group”: Theatre Unbound’s smart, funny musical treat


Just to be honest and up-front, the playwright Carol Critchley is a friend of mine. Reviewing the work of your friends can be dicey. But I needn’t have worried. One of the many reasons Carol is a friend is that she is one of the funniest writers I know. Which is why I was excited to hear that Theatre Unbound was offering up the world premiere of Carol Critchley’s new play Girl Group. Because we don’t get to laugh enough, and we don’t get to see nearly enough of Carol’s work on stage.

Critchley’s humor is great not just because it comes from character, but because it comes from a place of pain. Carol Critchley puts her characters in incredibly awkward situations, having conversations most people would do anything to avoid, and the scenes that result are hilarious. The new script Girl Group finds the playwright’s comedic talents in full bloom.

“I’ll just follow the trail of pork rinds and cowardice back to the real world.”

The girl group of the title is The Furies. Led by Flo (Becka Linder), their songwriter, lead singer and guitarist, the band also includes Flo’s sister Ruby (Amanda Kay Thomm), a recent addition on drums; bass player Cecy (Katia Cardenas); and guitarist and full time party girl Winnie (Laura Mahler).

“Can we at least pretend not to be desperate?”

The ladies are recruited by record producer Renny Cordell (Edward Linder) against Flo’s better judgment. Renny took on  Flo’s last band, which split off leaving her behind. The other band found commercial success while Flo stuck to doing the kind of music she believed in.

“He sucks the soul out of music and then sells the husk for profit.”

Cecy is more interested in a career than art. Ruby just stepped into music, replacing The Furies’ first lady drummer who left music behind to go build a more domestic life for herself.  Ruby is a follower, who thinks any money you can make while making music is good money. But will she follow her sister or Cecy? Winnie cares about the music she makes, but is just as concerned about having a good time while she does it. Her definition of a good time can get a little out of control.

“The reverberation of a dropped drumstick is becoming your signature sound.”

The Furies may be the new women in Renny’s life but they’re no match for the two women who have already been there. Renny’s wife and assistant Abigail (Tara Lucchino) is beginning to chafe in her constantly subservient role to her husband. Long-time backup and demo singer LaVern Monroe (Channing Jones) is also getting tired of her professional relationship with Renny leading nowhere. Promises of a hit record of her own keep slipping through her fingers as one promising song after another  that she records gets handed off to white girl pop groups instead. And now here come the Furies.

“Which one are you? Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”

Girl Group starts out in 1965 and works its way forward in time to 1985. In the course of that 20-year span, family ties and friendships and professional relationships are strained, broken and reshaped into something new; musical fortunes rise and fall and rise again. The play also gets to wink at the changing tides of culture that the audience knows are coming, but the characters in the story haven’t a clue about.

“I am not trained to deal with existential crises.”

Director Rebecca Rizzio keeps things buzzing right along. The whole cast knocks this one out of the park. All the actors are fully invested in their flawed, very human characters and the conflicts cut deep—which is strangely what also makes the laughs plentiful.

“You girls do understand English? People have been speaking to you in this language?”

The second half of the first act, which takes place in a recording studio, is a beautifully brilliant and subtle piece of work by all involved, as each and every one of the female characters—rather than help each other out—can’t help sabotaging each other. In most cases it’s not even deliberate. The expectations of society have been so imprinted on these five women that they often don’t even know they’re insulting each other until they’re in so deep, the next word out of their mouths just makes it worse.

Abigail is “just a secretary.” LaVern is black so of course she’s a backup singer, she’s not singing lead vocals. The Furies need to put down the musical instruments and wait for the “real musicians” to arrive or they’ll break something. No one has respect for anyone else because they all have different opinions about each other’s place in the hierarchy, and they’re all wrong. But again, deliciously funny. It’s comedy bordering on satire, yet still firmly grounded in real human character.

“Your approach to groveling is really spectacular.”

The ladies also make a pretty good band. The Furies’ pop-rock songs are catchy but still have a nice bite to them. You can see why Renny thinks they’re marketable at the same time he wants to sand off their rough edges (and originality) to make them even more marketable. You can also see in the lyrics and performance why Flo will always resist.

The one major hiccup in production is the sound mix. The ladies rock out but even though they’re right on top of their microphones, we always have a hard time hearing clearly what they’re singing—which is a shame, because the lyrics I did pick up were a lot of fun. This may get ironed out as the run goes on, but I recall similar issues with previous appearances by the Furies at other events leading up to this production. The ladies can sing; right now they’re just having a hard time breaking through.

“Should we get back to my overdose?”

Once more, I have to give a shout-out to Ursula Bowden’s set design. Bowden uses every inch of the Lowry Lab space and actually pulls off the neat trick of making the stage feel larger than it normally does, rather than cramped. With the story’s multiple locations across time and space, that’s no easy feat. The band’s instruments are left in full view upstage center for the bulk of the play and it’s not only a way to up the efficiency of transitions. It’s a nice visual nod to the fact that the music is always central in these women’s lives, and it never leaves them. When the instruments are finally obscured at the end by another piece of scenery, we know we’ve strayed far away from where the Furies began.

“Time’s just different in the desert.”

One of the funniest moments of the play toward the end is unfortunately something I can’t share even a hint of because it would be a major spoiler. Trust me when I say you’ve never seen a reunion of a group of musicians quite like this one. Again, awkward, but you won’t be able to keep yourself from laughing.

Seriously, just go see Girl Group. Sharp funny script, great acting, directing and design. Girl Group’s just a heck of a lot of fun. Strong new plays are all too rare. Strong new plays that actually get produced, even rarer. Theatre Unbound is offering us all a treat with this one. If you need a good laugh, and an enjoyable night at the theater, you should see Girl Group. Very highly recommended.

Read reviews of previous Theatre Unbound productions:
How I Learned to Drive (reviewed by Lydia Howell, 2008)
Dirty Girls (reviewed by Matthew Everett, 2012)
The Good Fight (reviewed by Matthew Everett, 2012)
Girl Shorts (reviewed by Matthew Everett, 2013)

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.