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Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road
When Gretchen Cryer was 33, a divorced mother of two and writer/lyricist with a raised consciousness, she set down her experiences for a new show about women. With Nancy Ford's music, the show revolves around Cryer's alter-ego, Heather Jones (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a struggling pop singer. Heather wants to break out, follow her own path, and create a show reflecting her personal songs and stories.
Directed by Kathleen Marshall, this fab revisit retains the distinctive look and sound of the period and keeps an effective intimacy. It is Heather's 39th birthday and she's about to launch her new act in a New York cabaret with two backup singers Alice (Christine Sajous) and Cheryl (Jennifer Sanchez) and a four-piece Liberated Man's Band. They are waiting to show the act to her long time manager and friend, Joe Epstein (Frederick Weller), who has been out of town.
When Joe arrives, however, he is less than enthusiastic. What happened to her hair (now a natural Afro)? Why does she have to tell her age, or talk about growing up in the 1950's? It will limit her appeal. Hearing her opener, "Natural High," with the lyrics, "But tomorrow I hit the road. . .Music is my one salvation," Joe thinks the chorus should end more optimistically instead of whimsically, as she wants.
Heather is patient, but when he urges her to return to her old songbook like the romantic, "In a Simple Way I Love You," she balks. "This song doesn't mean anything to me anymore. I wrote it a long time ago, in another life. It's Jello." The two, now sparring on opposite sides of the ring, prove to be compelling opponents, both landing effective punches.
Renee Elise Goldsberry ( The Color Purple, The Good Wife ), a versatile actor and singer, mines the strength and vulnerability grounding Heather's material. The anecdotes lead smoothly into the music. Power songs show her considerable vocal potency, in "Strong Women Number," for example, exploding with self-assurance. With ballads like "Dear Tom," a letter to her ex-husband, she brings a wide-eyed sincerity, admitting how she had often blamed him unfairly. Deftly, she finds the good girl-good wife image she had grown up with and pairs it with a new maturity. "Smile for Daddy," is plainly out there with the line, "I always tried to please."
Heather relates the difficulty women have offsetting their need for independence with a meaningful relationship. Noteworthy is "Old Friend," a song she wrote about her relationship with Joe. Sitting together alone on a step, the song poignantly illustrates the balancing act ("we sit in a bar and talk 'til two/ about life and love as old friends do/and tell each other what we've been through").
Frederick Weller persuasively plays Joe as a fusion of numerous men. Joe is a threatening, and threatened, man of the '70's, a victim of his time, confused about the needs and desires of women and wondering what more they want. He warns Heather that a great deal of her material is going to offend the men in the audience. Reacting on a deeper, more disturbing layer, he finds Heather's music an uncomfortable reminder of his relationship with his own troubled wife who acts out in desperation.
Derek McLane created an evocative cabaret setting with batik hangings as a backdrop and a faint whiff of incense while costume designer Clint Ramos uses the look of floppy hats and high-waited pants of the '70's.
Originally produced by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1978, I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road ran for 1,165 performances in 1978. Most critics hated it back then, but Papp kept it going and audiences kept coming and eventually the show went on the road with companies around the world.
Cryer and Ford may not have provided answers to all the problems but they provided the feminist movement with a spirited soundtrack. Renée Elise Goldsberry and Encores! sensitive new look still has much to say and deserves a longer run in New York. We know we haven't come far enough, Baby.