by Lynn on February 20, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace. Book and lyrics by Christopher Dimond. Music by Michael Kooman. Directed by Richard Ouzounian. Musical direction by Wayne Gwillim. Designed by Christine Barrett. Lighting by Gareth Crew. Starring Gabi Epstein, Amanda LeBlanc, Jonathan Logan, Jeff Madden.

Produced by Talk Is Free Theatre and Show One Productions.

Plays at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace until March 4 2012.

From the sublime of BECKETT: FECK IT! to the ridiculous of DANI GIRL.

I first saw DANI GIRL last year in Barrie, Ontario. Because the theatre in which it had intended to play was not ready, Talk is Free Theatre’s spunky, ever resourceful Artistic Director, Arkady Spivak scheduled the show to play in the reception area of the Barrie Community Health Centre. Not ideal to judge a production, but one got the sense of the piece.

This current production at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace gives a better perspective on both the piece and the production. Except for some acting, the whole enterprise is dire.

Dani is a sweet, imaginative nine-year-old girl who is experiencing a recurrence of cancer. She seems to have gotten the wretched disease when she was very young and went into remission when she was six. Her mother is very caring and supportive, and believes that prayer is the answer to everything. The father took off when Dani got cancer because he couldn’t cope with a child that was not perfect.

The show begins with Dani having a requiem for her beloved teddy bear Mr. Fritz who she has imagined has died of ovarian cancer. Dani gets solace from her imagined guardian angel, Rafe. She has lost her hair to chemo. All she wants is her hair back. Rafe promises that will happen if she answers a few questions correctly. The first several have the answer of ‘cancer’ (i.e ‘The name of the book is ‘The Tropic of ——‘). Dani answers them correctly. The last question is: “Why Cancer?” Dani doesn’t know. That is not the correct answer. So Dani and her hospital roommate, Marty, who also has cancer, go on their own voyage to outer space, inside the blood stream, into a tumor, and even heaven, to find the answer. (Presumably asking a doctor was too easy a thought, but then of course we wouldn’t have this musical…hmmmmmm). Along the way they meet a drug dealer with a Latin accent, cancer himself who wears sunglasses and has an English accent for some reason, and even God, who isn’t much help.

The piece started as Christopher Dimond’s master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. That’s where he met composer Michael Kooman who did the music. It’s frightening to note that DANI GIRL has gone through six workshop situations and this is the best it is.

DANI GIRL is a mess of fragmented thoughts that don’t really coalesce, with the suggestion they are big ideas. It is heavy on sentimentality but light on depth.

Dimond’s dialogue is plodding for the most part. But he has written a beautiful speech by God that is thoughtful, sensitive, deeply thought and felt. Dimond is capable of writing better than the majority this show indicates. As a lyricist he falls into the trap of writing to show how clever he is rather than for the character. Sorry, but a nine-year-old girl, no matter how curious and precocious, would not have the sophistication or maturity to internally rhyme ‘appalled’ with ‘resolved’. And can we please, please put a moratorium on the following type of witless dialogue:

Marty (looking thoughtfully at Dani after a particularly good time they’ve had): “Dani?”

Dani (returning the look): “Yes?”

Marty (gazing at her, pause, pause): “Nothing.” (As he turns and leaves).

This isn‘t meaningful. It’s twaddle. And when I can finish his line before he does, then you know it’s twaddle.

Michael Kooman’s music seems all upbeat with the same tempi. Between them they have written songs that take a slight fragment of thought but don ‘t expand it past its slightness. There are too many songs that seem like novelties. And do we really need a song in which the drug dealer goes through his list of slang words for drugs, if the only point is for him to tell Dani what drug to take to put herself in a coma?

Richard Ouzounian’s direction is pedestrian at best. He mistakes endlessly moving the large white foam squares and triangular shapes that form Christine Barrett’s set, for actual direction. It isn’t. Perhaps with all that activity we might think there is substance there. There isn’t. And one wonders about how sick Dani is. It is established that she knows her cancer has come back because she is so, so tired. But that is quickly forgotten when Ouzounian has her and Marty tearing around the stage, flipping and sliding, and jumping onto and off the squares. And couldn’t Barrett see that her set is too big for the small stage at the Passe Muraille Backspace and pare it down?

There are some redeeming aspects to this show. Gabi Epstein is charming, wide-eyed and resilient as Dani. And she sings beautifully. As Marty, Jonathan Logan is impish and sweet. He too sings well. As the Mother, Amanda LeBlanc does well in the one noted part of the mother who frets and prays. As Jake, cancer and a host of other characters, Jeff Madden is a cyclone of activity and accents, much of all this fuss and bother is unnecessary and annoying. But he is wonderful in that lovely speech as God at the end of the show. He is quiet, sensitive, reasoned and so caring for Dani. Madden also sings beautifully.

Ok. Enough. A few good moments in the show. Some hard working accomplished performers. But DANI GIRL is an unctuous, sentimental musical that needs a lot more work, rethinking and rewriting. There is a reason this show is not done anywhere else and it’s not the suggestion of challenging subject matter. It’s because it’s not good eough.

Post Script:

This was a tricky one to review because it’s directed by Richard Ouzounian, the theatre reviewer for the Toronto Star. All sorts of questions of ‘conflict of interest’ arise. Is it morally ethical for the Toronto Star to sanction its theatre reviewer to take a job (directing) in Toronto if that’s where he reviews? Where is Ouzounian’s real focus? In reviewing? Or direction? Or other, say playwriting—Ouzounian has published several plays? I can think of two people who reviewed, directed and wrote plays and they were stellar. Ouzounian isn’t one of them. Will his judgment be compromised if he has to review the people he has hired to be in his production of DANI GIRL? And if his direction is not stellar, does that compromise his evaluation of directors whose work is accomplished? Should other media in Toronto in turn review Ouzounian’s production of DANI GIRL or let it go by to be collegial? That’s happened too much in the past. It’s a play. I reviewed it.

Box Office: 416-504-7529-

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Theatre Lover February 21, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Thank you so much for bringing attention to the fact that Richard Ouzounian is directing in the same city in which he reviews. This moves way beyond conflict of interest and into absurd territory. Even better that his direction is terrible and emphasizes his bias towards his reviews and the performers he loves to promote in them. He has proven over and over again that he should be “de-throned” as a critic for the Star. Why would he choose to put himself in this position with a show like this one in particular. What is his urge to suddenly direct again? By all means, go ahead and direct but you can’t critique other directors when you are practicing it yourself. How is that objective? Maybe if other directors use big white squares in their shows he will appreciate them more. Obviously my opinion towards him is biased as well but if he can do it then why can’t I? Occupy The Star 2012!!!!


2 DaniBoy February 21, 2012 at 5:49 pm

Thank You for reviewing this and your comments in post script are the real questions that any theatre goer should ask before reading any more of Mr. Ouzounian’s writing and should really question the fairness of it. Does he attack really good young or experienced directors such as Atom Egoyan or Jennifer Tarver out of jealousy for his own lack of talent? If so that would be really sad state of affairs for Theatre Criticism in Toronto. Shame on Toronto Star for the lack of criteria and poor judgment. Toronto Star is deceiving theatre goers and Mr. Ouzounian thinks that he is untouchable. I hope that his unethical rein will not last long. Thank You again!


3 Drew January 23, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Just saw this at spirit if broadway in Norwich, Connecticut and I loved it. I’m glad I didn’t see it with your biased eyes.