Women from Diverse Backgrounds Battle Addiction in “Group!”; Passage Theatre Succeeds with World Premiere of New Musical
“GROUP!”: Performances are underway for “Group!” Directed by Maria Patrice Amon, the musical runs through May 22 at Passage Theatre. Above, from left: Jessica (Liz Barnett) facilitates a court-ordered anti-addiction group therapy program, but her methods (such as passing around a soccer ball on which she tapes impractical ideas) scarcely help the participants, including Sandra (Nicole Stacie), Ceci (Tamara Rodriguez), and Everly (Deja Fields). (Photo by Jeff Stewart)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Passage Theatre is presenting the world premiere of Group! By turns poignant and wry, the new musical portrays six women who meet at group therapy session to battle addiction.
Five of the women attend the program because of a court order. The sixth, Jessica, is the well-meaning but ill-equipped facilitator who moderates the sessions. Although Jessica appears to have little in common with the women she is trying to help, all of them are expected to succeed by a system that hinders their ability to do so.
Group! tells an original story set in present-day Trenton. The book is by Julia B. Rosenblatt; the dialogue segues seamlessly into Eloise Govedare’s lyrics. Composer Aleksandra M. Weil draws on a variety of musical styles, but uses an energetic pop rock sound to anchor the score.
Upon entering the theater we immediately see scenic designer Kayla Arrell’s set. Most of the action takes place in a room with (artfully) drab walls and uncomfortable-looking plastic chairs. A door marked “exit” is prominent, letting us wonder whether these women will successfully exit the therapy program. The walls are decorated with posters on which are written platitudes such as “change,” and “believe and succeed.”
Above the therapy room are three windows representing apartments. Moments that use that upper level — in which we see the participants’ lives away from the sessions — have some particularly effective and dramatic lighting by Alex Mannix.
We hear a contemplative keyboard introduction, followed by stirring, wordless vocal harmonies. This opening leads into “12 Days,” in which we briefly hear what offense each of the women committed, necessitating their participating in the program (a segment this writer found slightly rushed). In “Welcome to Group!” the participants — who doubt their need to be there — find Jessica to be ridiculous, and are united against her.
It scarcely helps that Jessica (portrayed by Liz Barnett) initially speaks to the participants in a relentlessly perky tone that might be more suitable if directed at young children, rather than grown women whose day-to-day lives are a struggle at best, traumatic at worst. (Costume designer Carmen Amon outfits Jessica with a bright red sweater that subtly but inescapably recalls Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.) Jessica’s style inevitably clashes with the other women, especially Dotty (Laura Turnbull), a bitter, caustic woman who is overwhelmed by the task of being the sole caregiver for her mother, who has dementia.
Jessica has the group pass around a soccer ball, on which she has taped concepts or suggestions that are of little more use than the wall posters. Many of the suggestions, which include taking up yoga, are impractical (at best) for these participants, and bespeak a lack of understanding — and, we will see, Jessica’s superiors’ indifference to — the lives these women lead.
Victoria (Samantha Bruce) is vulnerable and lives vicariously through Wonder Woman; she is re-creating that character’s costume, and dreams of attending Comic-Con. Sandra (Nicole Stacie) knows one of the other participants from another program. Ceci (Tamara Rodriguez) is at risk of losing her daughter to child protective services. Everly (Deja fields) is the youngest participant; she must complete the program in order to compete in her school’s soccer league.
Jessica’s apparent ineptitude is an early source of comic relief, but we also realize that it is dangerous. A misstep on her part has the potential to cause real harm — and in the case of at least one participant, that happens.
In between the sessions, we see outside relationships form between the participants. In the case of Sandra and Ceci, this becomes an intimate relationship — which is against the program’s rules.
“There’s No Such Thing as Magic,” a duet in which the flirtatious, exuberant Ceci seduces the more reticent Sandra, is a textbook example of how a musical theater song should work. The characters’ contrasting attitudes are conveyed, and the relationship between them is quite different by the time they finish the number. (No choreographer is credited, but Rodriguez punctuates her performance with smooth, suggestive leg movements.)
Despite the difference in their ages, Victoria and Everly develop a more platonic friendship. We learn that Victoria’s father sexually abused her, while Everly’s supported her in her athletic endeavors — but the support turned into pressure and unreasonable expectations. The friendship between the two becomes dangerous when the two smoke cocaine together; Victoria becomes unconscious and is taken to the emergency room.
At times the participants portray other characters, such as Dotty’s mother and Jessica’s unsympathetic superiors. We see Jessica’s perkiness evaporate as she becomes overwhelmed and incensed by bureaucratic red tape that limits her ability to help the women, and even endangers the health of one.
A key theme of the show is a harsh critique of the health care system, particularly in connection with marginalized or financially-challenged people. What makes Barnett’s performance so successful is the extent to which she convincingly conveys this arc, particularly when Jessica realizes that she is part of a broken system.
Director Maria Patrice Amon makes effective use of vertical levels in the staging of Jessica’s “Monster in the Dark.” Jessica kneels; we see her literally crumble under the weight of a task that is being made impossible. It is a striking contrast for a character who, at the beginning of the show, unintentionally looks down at the other women from a considerable height.
In a sense, Jessica shares a problem with Everly: the imposition of impossible expectations. Everly’s father expects her to be a soccer superstar, while Jessica’s superiors expect her to help the women while working with severely inadequate resources and potentially damaging regulations. A redeeming aspect of this is that it makes Jessica slightly more able to forge a real connection with the other women.
There are some strong vocal performances. Fields, who knows how to shape a musical phrase, is particularly lovely in “Reggae Girl.” Stacie stands out in “Thirsty,” letting the impassioned song build in intensity.
Music director Sheela Ramesh ably conducts (and performs keyboard 1 for) the band, which includes associate music Director Emily Cohn (keyboard 2), Max Casetra (guitar), Amanda Ruzza (electric bass), and Peter Saleh (drums and percussion). Along with the performers, sound designer Nina Field serves the music well; the vocals and instruments blend well.
During a post-show discussion it was revealed that the musical, the first draft of which was written four years ago, started as a play. In undertaking any work of musical theater, one of the first questions to ask is whether the story being told is enhanced by the addition of music and lyrics. Do the characters need to sing?
For Group! the answer is yes. The well-crafted score aids in making the characters distinctive. All of Dotty’s songs, for example, have a unique instrumental vamp and an accordion sound effect. Music also can heighten the emotional impact of a scene. “Some Kind of Normal,” portrays an attempt to create a sense of stability, by repeating the title phrase.
In “Thirsty” Sandra sings about the idea of an endless bottom — an insatiable need for the relief brought by alcohol or drugs. Notably, as she sings about a descent into an endless cycle of addiction, her voice rises in intensity. It is a powerful moment in a show that tells a story that has many to offer.
Passage has a long history of partnering with local organizations to further community dialogue about issues explored in the show. The May 15 performance was followed by a discussion that included Susan Adams, the coordinator of volunteers and community outreach for Womanspace, a nonprofit organization that provides help to victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Group! will play at Passage Theatre in the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street in Trenton, through May 22. The musical runs approximately two hours, with a 10-minute intermission. The production contains adult themes and brief physically intimate encounters; Passage Theatre’s website suggests the show for audiences age 17 or older. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org.