Lisa Jeans reviews bittergirl the musical, on now at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre (Club Stage)
It’s Not You, It’s Me: bittergirl the musical entertains but fails to empower
bittergirl the musical is on now until Nov. 6th at Edmonton’s The Citadel Theatre’s Club Space in a co-production with Confederation Centre for the Arts
Review by Lisa Jeans
My response to bittergirl the musical has been conflicted on a variety of levels. On the one hand, I see a group of women who have created this work from their own experiences, touched audiences, and achieved sufficient commercial success to build a brand with spin-off products (the book; the musical), and I want to cheer for that level of achievement. On the other hand, bittergirl the musical is a reworked play from the late ‘90s with hit tunes from the ‘60s and ‘70s which has received production support from publicly funded institutions. Ultimately, it is in the season at The Citadel, one of Canada’s most important regional theatres, occupying a slot that could have been granted to a strong emerging talent or a culturally diverse work that offers Citadel audiences a rare view into a world unlike their own.
Including bittergirls the musical, three of nine productions in the Citadel’s current season have women writers, and two of those credits are shared with men. A brief scan of the Citadel Theatre’s season suggests that racial and cultural diversity fare worse. A critical response to the performance is difficult to separate from the lack of gender and racial equity in programming.
bittergirl the play, written and first performed circa 1999 by Annabel (Griffiths) Fitzsimmons, Alison Lawrence, and Mary Francis Moore, provides the primary source material for bittergirl the musical, which debuted in June 2015 and is currently playing at the Citadel Theatre’s Club Stage. The play was contemporaneous with the Sex and the City juggernaut and addressed similar subject matter, which led to three sold-out runs in Toronto, performances in London, England, and in an off-Broadway showcase at the John Houseman Theatre. This new musical incarnation of the bittergirl text is directed by Adam Brazier, with music direction by Diane Lines, and features Amanda LeBlanc, Tara Jackson, and Rebecca Auerbach as Girls A, B, and C, in the roles previously performed by the creators, with Jay Davis as D—Everyman.
The plot of bittergirl the musical begins at the end of three romantic relationships and is told from the point of view of a trio of women friends. Each relationship is at a different level of commitment: one of the women is single and has been in a series of short-term relationships but wants more; another woman has been living with her partner; another is married and has a child. Dramatic moments from the women’s individual post-breakup lives are portrayed, from the challenges of juggling single parenthood with work responsibilities to awkward run-ins with exes to sheer loneliness and the loss of self-esteem. The trio of friends meet over drinks periodically to commiserate, to talk about their lives post-relationship and help each other get over their break-ups and, ultimately, come into their own and thrive. Song and dance punctuates the storytelling, with songs by Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach, Aretha Franklin, and Ashford and Simpson, and a host of other ‘60s and ‘70s classics.
Neither bittergirl the play nor bittergirl the musical would pass the Bechdel test because the process of getting over the breakup is more specifically about getting over an archetypal ‘him.’ The fact that Everyman is often outnumbered by the Girls, especially during musical interludes, does nothing to diminish the power this character wields over the Girls’ lives. He dumps each of the Girls in turn, and break-up conversations and shenanigans ensue. For a show about bittergirls, Everyman occupies a lot of space and time on the stage.
Furthermore, everything that I have read or seen in promotional videos for the show suggest that it is intended to be empowering and an ironic look at relationships, but for me the bite is missing, and I wonder if this is in part the result of a male directorial gaze. Some of the older women in the audience loved the Full Monty-esque choreography for the Everyman during musical numbers where he worked the floor flexing and thrusting, but their earnest enjoyment of this moment left me ambivalent about the intentions of the creators and the director, and wondered whether they were at odds.
The amalgamation of various collected breakup stories and the use of character types without specifying individual character names suggests the intention to depict universal experiences. Yet the characters and their situations feel very specific to an educated, straight, white, middle class world; in other words, a privileged experience of life, romance and romantic rejection that is straight out of Sex and the City and does not encompass relationships that may be based on diverse cultural traditions, identities, or values. In positing these three very specific stories and life circumstances as universal, when they are views into a specific milieu that is limited to dominant culture, heteronormativity and white privilege, the text betrays a major blind spot. Casting one talented person of colour does not make those issues in the text go away.
The addition of music is what makes this production new, but the music itself is not new. Rather than contributing to the empowerment of the Girls or offering an ironic wink, many of the song lyrics upheld old stereotypes related to women’s roles in romantic relationships. I also felt that the songs were not necessary to advance or enhance either plot or character development. The music was very well done and provided excellent entertainment value, but I am not sure that the combination of the selections and the way that they were integrated with the source text created a show that is more successful than bittergirls the play or a cabaret performance of the music minus the bittergirls story.
Whatever impressions and questions the show left me with as a new take on an existing text, a few of those old songs linger in memory, a throwback to a time in North America where assumptions about sameness in gender, race and culture were the norm. In the end, the bittergirls narrative, as unbelievable as some of the breakup stories are, was no match for the determined disco pulse of that relatively timeless and ultimate I’m-over-you song, ‘I Will Survive’.
Lisa Jeans is a theatre artist and writer. Her writing has been published in FASHION, The Globe and Mail, and a smattering of Canadian literary journals. One of her current projects is a performance text about violence against women in politics.