Despite a talented quartet of actors and an equally kick-ass musical quartet, Bittergirl’s clichés and anachronistic songs somehow feel out of place in 2017.
If you read the song list in the Bittergirl program it isn’t difficult to figure out the thin story arc. Even if you miss this important clue though it isn’t long into this jukebox musical before you know where it will ultimately lead.
Three women, known simply as “A”, “B” and “C”, all get dumped by the men in their lives. They then look for a way to rekindle the relationship, only to have their hearts broken a second time. It comes as no surprise they eventually, with emphasis on the eventually, realize they don’t need to be defined by a man in their life.
Predictability aside, there are some fundamental problems with a show combining songs from the 60s and 70s within a contemporary context, and there is little doubt why the writers of Bittergirl had to look back nearly six decades for their music. Because these types of songs don’t exist with such frequency today.
Instead of feeling sorry for oneself at losing a break-up, today’s popular music is all about taking control, and in not letting someone else define you.
Instead of Dee Dee Williams singing “I’m Going to Make You Love Me” or The Three Degrees wondering “When Will I See You Again”, today it is Taylor Swift singing “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. Or Pink telling the world she doesn’t need him in “So What”.
While the songs in Bittergirl eventually do reach some level of female empowerment, it takes nearly the entire show to get there. And like many of these types of musicals, we are served a finale designed to ensure we forget what has taken place in the preceding two hours.
Then there is the constant barrage of clichés. I even half-joked at intermission the stage would eventually collapse under their weight. With so few surprises in the writing, if it weren’t for the music it would be easy to tune it all out.
In his pre-show opening night welcome, Arts Club’s artistic director Bill Millerd described Bittergirl as enthusiastic. He was right on this front, thanks to a terrific cast.
The trio of female leads – Lauren Bowler, Katrina Reynolds, and Cailin Stadnyk – all have beautiful voices. Whether in their harmonies or in solo numbers, the three handle the music with both an ease and flare. The comedy, much of it of the physical nature, is as spot-on as some of the choreography from director Valerie Easton. There was a tendency though to conclude many of the musical numbers with the trio singing downstage centre to the audience.
As the lone male of the cast, Josh Epstein holds his own against the three women. Finding a unique take on each of the three men he plays, he also brings down the house in each of his songs.
The quartet of musicians visible on a platform stage left are simply superb. But while focus on the four actors on stage is important, by placing the band in plain view also makes them a de facto part of the action. At times the musicians appeared to be going through the motions, rather than an integral part of the proceedings.
(For additional reading I would recommend the terrific piece written by Lisa Jeans for Alt.Theatre, in which she places Bittergirl under a sometimes feminist lens. While her commentary deals with a previous production, much of what she says remains relevant.)
Bittergirl: The Musical, book by Annabel Fitzsimmons, Alison Lawrence, and Mary Francis Moore. Directed by Valerie Easton. An Arts Club Theatre company on stage at the Granville Island Stage (1585 Johnston St, Vancouver) until July 29. Visit https://artsclub.com for tickets and information.