Bridge Street Theatre, Catskill, NY
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, Book by Joy Gregory, Lyrics by Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen, based on a story by Joy Gregory, Gunnar Madsen and John Lange, Music by Gunnar Madsen. Based on a true story. Directed and Designed by John Sowle. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Open your old heart"
"The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World" is the story of three sisters who become their father's indentured slaves, a performing girl group of singers, in 1968 in a small town in New Hampshire. He works them like field-hands and sets stardom for them as his goal so that they can support him to the end of his days. At Bridge Street Theatre where this show is playing they have called this "an unconventional musical" but it is more that that; it is a rough and unreasonable musical about familial sadism and abuse. Knowing that it is a true story makes that even harder to handle. This is also the first musical this theater company has ever produced.
Alexa Powell as Dot, Meeghan Darling as Helen, Amara Wilson as Betty;
photo: John Sowle
These are high school kids who do not sing and do not play instruments, Dot, Betty, and Helen Wiggin, children of Austin and Annie Wiggin. Denied overtime at his job of 14 years, Austin literally loses his mind in a fury and comes up with the idea of transforming his children into the next big thing in music as a way to make his mark on society. They end up playing every Saturday night in the local town hall dance and eventually they make a record of new and original songs. That they are terrible is clear as they sing and play songs such as "Things I Wonder" - an actual Shaggs song from 1968 - with its reversing phrases and banal music.
Magnus Bush as Kyle, Julian Broughton, Meeghan Darling; Photo: John Sowle
While the girls obey their manic father, they also lead lives of their own when and how they can. They are very obedient, yet highly rebellious and when the youngest gets married secretly she - ultimately - unleashes a fury in her father that is almost homicidal. Helen is played by the very lovely Meeghan Darling whose sensitive portrayal of the singer who will not speak is amazing. Her virgin-husband, Kyle, is played by the equally sensitive Magnus Bush whose final scene is very moving. He is also of interest to Betty Wiggin, played with force and a charmless guile by Amara Wilson. Sister number three, Dorothy - or Dot - is the practical and sobering girl played with a simplicity that is overwhelming by Alexa Powell.
Molly Parker Myers as Annie Wiggin; Photo: John Sowle
Their mother Annie is a woman living in fear of her husband's anger. She is incapable of advocating for her daughters and, instead, stays out of as much of this business as possible. Molly Parker Myers is wonderful in this role, displaying the sensitivity of an abused woman and the fortitude of a loving mother who cannot assert herself into the fray on their behalf. She sings beautifully and shows us that there is talent to be found in this unfortunate family controlled by a madman. Myers has a gentle and frightened look much of the time as she watches, helpless, as her husband destroys the innocence of her offspring.
Austin is explored and delineated by actor Steven Patterson who makes the man so frightening it is hard at times to watch him. His fury during the recording session he wants to control is just horrible, a display of distemper that would get a dog shot if he acted that way. Austin will be remembered by Bridge Street attendees as the best example of miserable character that Patterson is likely ever to play. He isn't just a Scrooge in temperament, but rather Scrooge acted by a demon.
+ 07/15/19 +
Steven Patterson as Austin Wiggin; Photo: John Sowle
The show's band is led beautifully by Michelle Storrs and it is a pity that the score isn't a better one. John Sowle as director has kept the show moving along, turning around and sliding across the stage. His dramatic scenes are better than his music performance pieces. Perhaps that is due to the writing for the book scenes have a basic advantage here - they ring true while the songs seem too impossible to be real.
While The Shaggs were described in one 1969 Rolling Stone article as "sounding like lobotomized Trapp Family singers" they were also compared, musically, to the quirky jazz musician Ornette Coleman.
Sometimes truth is definitely stranger than fiction and this show goes a long way in proving just that. While the group had a revival in the late 1970s and again in this century, they will go down as one of the worst examples of pop music of all time and this show will be right there with it to prove it.
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World continues at Bridge Street Theatre, 44 West Bridge Street, Catskill, NY through July 21. For information and tickets go to bridgest.org or call 518-943-3894.