Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
With over 150 Toronto Fringe shows to choose from, it helps to receive some alerts to get the heady job of scheduling off the ground. Thanks to a proactive email, Emily Richardson’s It Girls: A Pop Comedy Musical got on our radar – a great tip, as it turns out. Let’s get one thing out of the way from the get-go: It Girls is laugh-out-loud hilarious, just as you would expect from the versatile Richardson, who is a seasoned and award-winning actor-writer-educator from The Second City (among other places); and the equally multi-skilled Ashley Comeau, who has directed It Girls while performing in both Clotheswap at the Toronto Fringe and runaway hit She the People: The Resistance Continues at The Second City.
The action centres on the titular It Girls, a 4-member girl group (think Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child or En Vogue) who were forced to disband during the group’s heyday when Lisa Jibb (Richardson) decided to part ways.15 years later, after life has taken them in very separate directions, an opportunity presents for the It Girls to reunite as the opening act for Sloane Jetta (Aba Amuquandoh), the one member who went on to hit it big as a pop star. Lisa convinces the initially reluctant Kellys (Erica Gellert and Devon Henderson) to relive their glory days through this comeback show. What ensues is an hour of comedy that runs the gamut of pop-culture references, hilarious new girl-group pop numbers (fully choreographed, naturally), and scandal-rich backstories that would send TMZ into overdrive. The show revels in its camp – it is gloriously shameless in mining this material for laughter. Yet at the same time, it explores themes like sexuality, addiction, the consequences of fame, the nature of success, and the effect of jealous rivalries. And it humanizes the four group members (who at first blush are stereotyped Spice Girl proxies) as thinking, feeling individuals working through hopes and strife in order to lead meaningful lives.
By far the show’s strongest element is the chemistry of its cast. They are seasoned improvisers and sketch artists, so no joke seems off limits – and at times, even these pros struggle not to laugh. The set, props and costumes are minimalist, which is reminiscent of sketch comedy revues. And here, as there, the actors do a lot with a little. The show literally sings because of their comedic chops, and aside from a few tactical props, all the actors need to do is their thing and have fun with it. When placed in a venue with a receptive audiences ready to whoop, holler and “right-on-sister,” the guffaws flow in a torrent. The pacing has a manic quality, and it will be interesting to see if this changes in the next it-eration (sorry). This has the unpretentious feel and fun energy of a really talented high school’s homegrown show – and I mean that as a compliment!
Because It Girls is a pop musical comedy, the songs within the show are also significant. They are an awesome blend of 2000s-inspired hooky earworms (co-written by Richardson and music director Ayaka Kinugawa) and cringe-worthy lyrics that have – emphatically and deliberately – not aged well. As I listened and laughed, I wondered how much these songs are the result of the (literally) sober second thoughts we sometimes have when we listen to the songs we loved in our youth. With the passage of time and (at least a little) maturity, yesterday’s hummable hooks, anthemic choruses and supposed girl power messages can reveal themselves to be trite, misogynistic and even culturally appalling. Richardson is merciless in satirizing this effect. She goes for the jugular when the It Girls perform, after 15 years of lived experience, their still catchy, yet now lyrically catastrophic numbers. The results are both hysterical and needfully uncomfortable.
To say much more would spoil the effect of It Girls. If you haven’t seen It yet, consider this your heads-up to add it to your Fringe list. It’s frothy and funny, but far from vacuous. You will certainly come out laughing . . . and chances are, you will never listen to girl-group pop hits in quite the same way again.
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What: It Girls: A Pop Comedy Musical, created by Emily Richardson; composition and music direction by Ayaka Kinugawa; directed by Ashley Comeau
Performed by Emily Richardson, Aba Amuquandoh, Erica Gellert, Devon Henderson, Tom Hearn, Marshall Lorenzo
Who: Audiences 16 years of age and older
When: On stage until July 13, 2019
Where: Factory Theatre Mainspace, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: Fringetoronto.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019