A word of advice before I start this writeup: Do not do a Google image search on the phrase “Serial Killer Barbie”. The results are simultaneously hilarious and disturbing, and likely not related to the show in question. Some people out there have sick and twisted, but amusing, minds. But you must admit that the name draws you in.
Ah, right, where was I. High School. High School is popular fodder for musicals: from the intensely popular Grease to the much less popular Carrie, to musicals such as Zanna Don’t and Lysistrata Jones, high school — in fact, school in general — serves as a microcosm of society in general. Capturing this microcosm is the goal of the hilarious new musical, Serial Killer Barbie: The Musical (FB), currently in extension at the NoHo Arts Center (FB), produced by Theatre 68 (FB) and Take a Hike Productions. The teaser description of this musical is as follows: “Quirky Barbara spends her life desperate to get in with the popular “Debbies.” From first grade through high school, she obsessively attempts to join the coveted social circle of Debbie, Debby and the queen of the WASPY clique, Debbi. After several failed attempts to fit in, she realizes, if you can’t join them, kill them.”
I learned about this musical in a mailing from their PR person (or perhaps Bitter Lemons — it’s a bit hazy now). The title drew me in, but when I read the description of the show I was more intrigued. Alas, the craziness that is December did not permit me to schedule it in. So, when it extended I started to explore ways to go (e.g., looking for discount tickets — yes, I could ask their publicist, but I prefer to buy my tickets if I can). Plays411 provided the discount tickets (they just went up on Goldstar), and so the first live theatre of the year became Barbie.
Serial Killer Barbie: The Musical (FB) (SKB) revisits a familiar theme that is common to most people: the quest to fit in and be popular. I noted before this is common in school-based musicals — it resonates in Carrie, it resonates in Zanna, and it even resonates (in the sub-plot) in Grease. It’s also a theme in some of our most popular musicals, including the current resident at the Pantages: Wicked. What will we give up to be popular, and how will that sacrifice affect our life? Usually, because the show is written by theatre geeks who never fit in to begin with (that’s a joke, son), the upshot is that the outcast becomes the hero or heroine, and learns to rejoice in their uniqueness. [I certainly resemble that story; us computer science geeks rarely fit in]
So if this is such a common theme, what makes SKB successful and not derivative. I think the answer is in the clever presentation of the story — credit here goes to the book writer, Collete Freedman (FB). Freedman posits the school experience as an endurance battle, which she portrays as a boxing match. Just like a boxing match has 12 rounds, school has 12 years (well, it could have 15 years if you count pre-school and kindergarten… and boxing used to have 15 rounds). For the outcast, attending school is like Ali’s rope-a-dope — putting yourself in a losing position to become the eventual winner. Freedman makes this analogy literal in the musical: each scene (except for the framing scenes) is construed as a round, and that round roughly corresponds to a grade. Through the 12 rounds (grades) we see our heroine (Barbara Laura) meet and interact with the Debbies during her school years. This is framed with the story of a mom (Barbara) telling the story to her daughter (Parker), and her daughter not believing the story is true. Is it? The question is left open.
The story that is told is a simple one: Barbara Laura Dunbar starts first grade. All the other kids are crying through separation anxiety, but she’s not afraid. She quickly befriends another individualist, Bruce, who has a penchant for adopting the personal of a difference fictional Bruce every year (he starts as Bruce Wayne). They become best friends; they are, however, never popular. Who is? The three Debbies: Debbie (with an “ie”) who wants to be first at everything (and we do mean everything); Debbi (with an “i”), who is always air-quoting things and is a true consumer whore — setting the fashion and consumer trends for everyone else; and the airhead blonde Debby (with a “y”), who is addicted to her cellphone. Rounding out the class are Sebastian, the jock; Beatrice, the ADD-affected nerd-ish girl; Quinn, the clown; Sharon, the militant foul-mouthed angry child; and Ronald, the Boy Scout.
As the years go by, Barbara keeps trying to fit in with the Debbies and failing. Finally, they need fourth for their singing group and accept her in … but she never quite fits in. After the lead Debbie takes advantage of Barbara’s frendship with Bruce to trash and embarass Bruce, Barbara has enough and leaves the group, and goes back to being an individualist. She also is desirous of revenge for what they did to her best friend Bruce. Serial Killer Barbie is born, and the Debbies drop one by one. Of course, there’s always the question of whether she did it, or whether the Debbies did it to themselves through their overfocus on themselves. This is the question you are left with as the production ends: Barbie’s daughter doesn’t appear to believe her mom did this, but did she?
I’ve written the above as if this were a play, but this is really a musical. The music was written by Nickella Moschetti (FB), with lyrics written by the book author Collete Freedman (FB) and Moschetti. Each round (scene) includes an appropriate song. The songs themselves are very entertaining — I particularly enjoyed “Consumer Whores”. Other entertaining songs included a well-choreographed number involving popularity and representation of character through the lunch boxes one brings to school (Barbara is the only one with a bag lunch); a hilarious and potentially scary Jesus Christ sexy dance routine; and the dark “21 Ways To Kill A Debbie”. Alas, there is no song list in the program, and although I searched and searched, I could not find one online. Songs mentioned by other reviewers included “Middle School Sucks”, “I Don’t Want To Be Different”, “What Do I Wear?”, and “Price of Popularity”. But are entertaining songs enough today? If one was to drop the songs out of this show, would the story still flow and hold together? That last question is the difference between a true musical and a play with songs interpolated (and was the genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein). Here the question is harder. A number of the songs, while not integral, do a good job of illustrating the internal character and conflicts of the characters. Others are more disposable. The music has the potential here to elevate the show to something that could work in larger venues, but it needs a little more tweaking to become memorable and integral (and a song list will help).
Before we go into the specific performances, let’s round out the broad artistic aspects: namely, the choreography. Anne-Marie Osgood/FB served as choreography, and she did a great job of designing movement for the limited space in Theatre 2 at NoHo Arts. The movement in the opening number (“What Do I Wear?”) was inspired and fun to watch, and I particularly enjoyed the aforementioned lunch box ballet :-). The dance moves in the Jesus number were also fun.
Let’s turn now to the performances. In the lead position was Kelly Dorney (FB) as Barbie. Dorney was just a hoot to watch: quirky, enthusiastic, ernest, and just having a lot of fun with the role. If you’ve read past writeups, you know that this is something I love to see: actors who just meld with their roles, actors where the love of the character and the characters quirks, flaws, and oddities just oozes from their pores. Now, add to this the fact that Ms. Dorney could really sing, and did a great job with all of her musical numbers, and I was just blown away. This is someone I look forward to seeing again.
Supporting Barbie was her best friend, Bruce. Here’s my second quibble of the night — not with the actor, but with the program. Our program had a slip of paper indicating that our Bruce was the swing, Bradley Estrin (FB), and that playing Bradley’s normal role of Ronald would be Devon Hadsell (FB) as Rhonda. This actually excited us, as we had seen Hadsell in Lysistrata Jones and we were looking forward to her performance. We looked and looked, but couldn’t find her. It was only when writing this review that I realized what happened: the slip was in error. We had the original Bruce, Alex Robert Holmes (FB); Estrin was playing Ronald; and Hadsell wasn’t there that night. Leaving the slip in the program was poor form: it was a disservice to Holmes, it was a disservice to Hadsell, and it was a disservice to Estrin. If you are going to recycle programs, please remember to remove substitution strips.
That quibble aside, Holmes gave a very touching performance and Bruce. His portrayal of the character provided the needed sensitivity to the black comedic nature of the story, and played well with Dorney’s Barbie. He also sang quite well.
The remaining major characters were the Debbies: Katy Jacoby (FB) as Debbi (with an “i”), Kacey Coppola (FB) as Debby (with a “y”), and Marti Maley (FB) as Debbie (with an “ie”). All three were great singers, and their performances could best be described as intense. This was best illustrated with the Jesus dance routine, where they were making the concrete floor shake. They made these three come across as women you would not mess with — which is exactly what their characters were supposed to be. Again, these were actresses who were just having fun portraying these characters — they enjoyed playing with the them and letting that side of their personas come out. Great work.
Rounding out the cast were Cy Creamer (FB) as Sebastian, Nicole Fabbri as Beatrice, Jillian Fonacier/FB as Sharon, Christopher Kelly (FB) as Quinn, Bradley Estrin (FB) as Ronald, and Grace Nakane as Parker (Debbie’s 6-year old daughter). Each of these actors did a great job of making their characters their own. Especially notable were Creamer’s interactions as Sebastian with Holmes’ Bruce (in particular, the love sequence), Fabbri’s wonderful awkwardness and how she moved in the background during scenes, Fonacier’s radiated anger as Sharon (apparent from her first appearance on stage when she wrote “I will not use my middle finger to express myself” on the blackboard), and Kelly’s wonderful mime routine as Quinn. Nakane worked well as Parker, handling her adult astute observations with that childish nature of superiority. Some reviewers didn’t like the framing device that her performance provided; I felt it provided some necessary grounding and reality to the story. Lastly, Estrin’s Ronald mostly blended in as that character was wont to do; I can see how a different sensibility for the show would come from Estrin providing a less quirky Bruce and Hadsell’s Rhonda being involved with Sharon. As implied, Estrin served as understudy for Sebastian and as male swing, Devon Hadsell (FB) was the female swing, and Audrey Bluestone was the understudy for Parker.
Music was provided by the composer, Nickella Moschetti (FB), who served as musical director, played keyboards, and as the “Round 4” teacher who wrote the problems on the board. Rounding out the school “band” were Ed Cosico (FB) on guitar and Hilletje Bashew (FB) on violin. The three provided a very good sound; one wonders how this show would sound with a larger orchestration.
Turning to the technical, and the third qubble for the show — with had nothing to do with the artistic and more to do with the facility. For some reason, at our performance, there was no air conditioning, and with the lights, it was hot hot hot. Hopefully, that problem will be fixed soon.
As I said, turning to the technical: the set design by Adam Gascoine (FB) was both simple and perfect. A large number of movable wooden boxes, some lockers, and painted blackboards and schoolroom accessories on the wall established the scene sufficiently, and the few props worked to do the rest. The costumes, by Susi Campos, worked quite well and were revealing and sexy without being too revealing. This was a challenge as the actors come out in underwear and get dressed on stage in the opening number. The costuming demonstrated quite a bit of creativity and character building, and were a significant part of the overall scenic design. Adam Gascoine (FB) did the sound design as well (according to some additional credits I found), and Christina Robinson (FB) and Brad Bentz (FB) did the lighting desgn. Additional credits in the program are Christian Kennedy (Stills Photographer) and Eddie Roderick (Postcard Designer). One additional credit I found while researching this: the design for the poster was crowdsourced through 99designs.com.
The production was directed by Ronnie Marmo (FB), who did what a director should do: make the direction appear invisible. Marmo did a great job of getting the actors excited about their roles and embodying their roles, and effectively used the space he had available to tell the story. What more could you want?
Serial Killer Barbie: The Musical (FB) has been extended to run through January 31, 2015. Performances are Friday, and Saturday – 8:00PM and Sunday – 7:00PM. Tickets are $30 and are available through Theatre68 by calling (323) 960-5068. They are also available through Plays411.net, Goldstar (until they sell out), and possibly LA Stage Tix.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: Sunday brings the second show of this weekend: “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente at American Jewish University on Sun January 11. The third weekend of January starts the Rep season with “Avenue Q” at REP East (FB) on Sat January 17. The fourth weekend of January brings an interesting mashup: Pulp Shakespeare (or Bard Fiction) at Theatre Asylum (FB) — this show is described as “Ever wonder what Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece PULP FICTION would be like reimagined by the immortal William Shakespeare?”. The last weekend of January concludes with the Cantors Concert on Sat January 31 at Temple Ahavat Shalom, and I’m potentially looking for another show for Sunday. February and March pick up even more, with “The Threepenny Opera” at A Noise Within (FB) on February 15, a hold for “Loch Ness” at the Chance Theatre (FB) on February 21, “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28, the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7, “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a hold for “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on Friday March 20, “Doubt” at REP East (FB) on Saturday March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. Additionally, there’s a Marcy and Zina concert at Pepperdine on Tuesday, February 3; alas, as it is a weeknight, I may not make it. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.