Members of the cast of Bad Girls. Photo by Kimberly Jansz.
Members of the cast of Bad Girls. Photo by Kimberly Jansz.

In the musical Bad Girls, currently playing at the Renegade Shop Theatre in Vancouver, you get rape, violence, drugs, and even a suicide. And just what every gritty prison drama needs: a really good kick line.

Long before Piper, Tiffany, and Nicky donned their orange jumpsuits, there was Helen, Shell, and Nikki. Based on the British television series of the same name that ran for eight years in Britain from 1999-2006, this musical version of the critically acclaimed series was written just as that series ended.

With a book by Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus, who also created the television series, on its surface at least, Bad Girls is a pretty straight-forward prison drama, albeit set to music. Conflict between inmates is aplenty, the new prison warden is looking to change the system for the better, and the “screws” are a mix of compassion and cruel.

With its mix of gritty reality and wild production numbers though, it is as if two shows are sometimes at play. There are a number of times that you may very well find yourself whispering WTF under your breath, as violence gives way to high camp, and heart-felt ballads are juxtaposed against Busby Berkeley.

But even as one doesn’t need to be familiar with its source material to follow the story, the big question of the night comes from an underlying feeling that we are somehow missing the bigger joke. It is as if Chadwick and McManus are sending up their own creation, while simultaneously trying to remain true to the prison drama genre. Strangely enough, for the most part, it actually works.

In this community theatre production from Vancouver’s DramaNatrix Productions, the cast is largely up to the challenges of Bad Girls’ split personality.  There is an energy among this large cast of women that helps immensely, even as things sometimes go off the rails.

A mix of amateur and pre-professional actors, not everything works. There are a number of individual performances though, especially in the vocal department, that help keep things interesting.

Sarah Smith is absolutely breathtaking in the act two opener, “Freedom Road”, backed in wonderful harmonies by the other inmates. The big production number “A-List” gets a dose of extra energy from a terrific Stephanie Liatopoulos.  The very funny, yet disturbing “All Banged Up” not only shows off Natalie Schreiber and Charlotte Wright’s vocal skills, but their comedic chops as well. The hodgepodge of accents aside, like many community theatre productions before it, things are at their best when the ensemble comes together.

Some of Bad Girl’s darker moments don’t fare so well. The suicide gets lost in a cacophony of noise and action, vastly diminishing its impact. The penultimate scene, in which one of the prisoners attempt to entrap a guard, also failed to realize the full potential of its harsh and sexualized authenticity.

Under the co-direction of Liz Maillard and Stephanie Liatopoulos there are a number of times when seemingly unnecessary movement pulls focus. Phil Schulze’s lighting design is intriguing as it uses follow spots to help draw our focus to each new scene. The big problem here though is more often than not the actors found themselves in complete or partial darkness. With so many tight specials part of Schulze’s design, there is a big lesson here: it is always important to find your light.

The small band never overpowers the unamplified cast, and the use of brass is always a welcome addition.

Bad Girls may not always know what it wants to be, but it is oddly entertaining.

Bad Girls with book by Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus. Music and lyrics by Kath Gotts. A DramaNatrix Productions presentation on stage at the Renegade Shop Theatre (125 East 2nd Avenue, Vancouver) until October 15. Visit http://dramanatrixproductions.com for tickets and information.