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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Village Theatre premieres a Snappy Stunt Girl

Hello, Dolly!
Jessica Skerritt and Eric Polani Jensen
As larger than life characters from the turn-of-the-century go, Elizabeth Cochran, who became a ground breaking female news reporter under the nom de plume of Nellie Bly, has been largely forgotten as the decades have gone by. But, thanks to the efforts of book writer/lyricist Peter Kellogg and composer David Friedman, her eventful and varied life has come to the musical stage in Stunt Girl, a new musical which receives its world premiere production, following several workshop versions, at Village Theatre. The production, slickly directed and jauntily choreographed by Steve Tomkins, opened last week in fine shape and to a very enthusiastic audience response - well deserved by the talented, high-octane cast that perform it.

The stunt part of Stunt Girl comes from the outrageous lengths to which Ms. Bly would go to land a story, whether it be posing as a lunatic to get the inside scoop on a criminally mismanaged insane asylum, or going around the world in less than the eighty days it took Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg. Under the employ of Joseph Pulitzer (who virtually created yellow journalism and is best known nowadays for the Pulitzer Prizes awarded to writers each year), Bly, at least in the musical, is smitten with editor Arthur Brisbane but ends up leaving the newspaper world to marry the much-older millionaire manufacturer Robert Seaman and, in working with him, introduced health care for workers as a benefit. After his death, mismanagement forced the pioneering female industrialist into bankruptcy, and she returned to reporting.

Kellogg and Freeman have created a largely engaging fictionalized musicalization of Bly's bigger than life story, with Friedman penning several engaging tunes and themes which Kellogg sets to literate lyrics. After a fairly standard opening number, "That's the Headline," starts the show off a little shakily, it quickly rebounds with a great newsroom comic number with Pulitzer and his cronies warning the neophyte Arthur Brisbane "Don't Bore Them," and John Patrick Lowrie creates a wonderfully blustery Pulitzer, ably abetted by Eric Polani Jensen as his curmudgeonly cohort Howard. Sarah Chalfy manages the right combination of toughness and charm to establish her Nellie, first as she tries to sell Pulitzer on hiring her in "Tell Me What You Need” and then assessing the grim insane asylum conditions in "This is Frightful.” Chalfy shares a nice romantic duet with Dane Stokinger's soft-spoken Brisbane in "Now You” and Stokinger also gets an attractive, late act one ballad in "All that Matters." So often cast in roles requiring little beyond sweetness and light, Jessica Skerritt amusingly and resourcefully mines her wicked side as Phoebe, Nellie's witchy office rival for Brisbane's affection. In a pair of comic duets with Jensen ("I'll Be Sweet" and "Make Him Jealous") Skerritt is a saucy delight, though ultimately Phoebe settles for marriage and kids with Howard. As Robert, the husband who changes Nellie's life and career trajectory, Hugh Hastings brings shading and nuance to a rather dullish character, and uses his fine voice effectively on "There's More to Life." The act one closer "Around the World" is a tuneful and dramatic song and Tomkins' chance to really go to town with splashy staging.

With all the central characters established in act one, some of Kellogg and Freedman's best work comes into play in act two. The funniest song in the show, "I'm in Hell" hilariously portrays Bly's unease at playing the role of society hostess for her husband, with Chalfy and the women's ensemble scoring big laughs throughout the number. "Do What the Lady Says" is a potent depiction of the working-class employees getting used to a female boss, and "After All the Years" reunites the old news room gang to droll effect, with a canny way of working a now deceased Pulitzer into the number. The show goes for a rather quiet ending with Nellie and Arthur ruminating over their shared life experiences.

R.J. Tancioco's musical direction is top of the mark, with rich sounds from the musicians, and crisp enunciation from the performers. Scott Fyfe's scenic design captures a nostalgic feeling for the varied sights depicted throughout Nellie's journeys, and Alex Berry provides a richly complimentary lighting design. Melanie Burgess' costume design is strong on period detail.

Stunt Girl could do with a bit more tightening in its storytelling, as is often the case in such episodic tales. A less generic opening number which better introduces Nellie herself and what she wants would be worth looking into. But this show feels very close to the point where its authors should freeze it, and if Broadway isn't buying this kind of genial, old-fashioned show at present, I have a feeling that plenty of companies around the country would embrace it.

Stunt Girl runs through April 26, 2009 at Village Theatre in the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front Street North, Issaquah, WA, and then May 1-24, 2009 at Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Avenue, Everett, WA. For more information go to www.villagetheatre.org.


Photo: Jay Koh



- David Edward Hughes



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