The world premiere of The Loneliest Girl in the World is a creative and moving work that looks at an early period of the gay rights movement by paralleling the lives of two figures, Anita Bryant and Thom Higgins (just Tommy in the musical).
The show opens with the press conference in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1977, where Tommy threw a pie in Anita’s face. The next two scenes take the audience back to the 1959 Miss America pageant, where Anita was the second runner-up. A young Tommy watches the pageant on TV while baking a pie with his mother. These scenes set Tommy’s fixation on Anita, who, in his imagination, sings and dances with him.
The rest of the musical alternates between Anita and Tommy, capturing key events and experiences in their lives: Anita’s marriage to the former disc-jockey Robert Green, who becomes her manager; Anita’s appearances in commercials; her thriving career in the music industry. Tommy’s moving to a new city; his growing awareness of his sexuality; his first awkward encounter with Kyle, his future boyfriend, highlighted by a musical number “Twin Bed.”
Allison Spratt Pearce portrays Anita Bryant as a woman with feelings for others. Rather than depicting Anita as a go-getter, Pearce’s Anita is a woman pushed by her husband and finds a respite in her “crusade.” Sam Heldt portrays Tommy as a shy and sensitive person who develops an obsession with Anita Bryant as a way of coping.
The ensemble of four excellent actors — Steve Gouveia, Lauren King Thompson, Marci Anne Wuebben and Shaun Tuazon — play multiple roles, contrasting the worlds of Anita and Tommy and also providing both comic relief and depth to the production.
Matt M. Morrow directs the musical at Diversionary Theatre, with the book and lyrics by Gordon Leary, and music by Julia Meinwald. Stephen Brotebeck is the choreographer. It was originally developed at Ars Nova in 2013 and was previously presented at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals in 2016.
This production’s extremely creative designers emphasize the “two dimensional” quality of media through two-dimensional set, props, and costumes. Scenic designer Robin Sanford Roberts created a lime-green wall painted with old-fashioned TV monitors (with channel knobs) which become openings for characters to “appear” on TV and establish the timeline. A “table” with wheels on two sides (Bonnie Durben, prop designer) transforms into different objects such as a kitchen counter, podium, and bed, so the actors can smoothly and quickly change a scene on the theatre’s small stage.
The monitors are lit (lighting designer Christina J. Martin) in blue, purple, green, red, orange, and yellow to underscore the atmospheres with different tones of lighting to differentiate two paradigms of the world Tommy: reality and fantasy
Elisa Benzoni’s costumes express the period and personalities as well as reproducing the clothing worn by Anita and Tommy when the referenced events occurred. Wigs (Peter Herman, wig designer) supports the rendition of trends and styles of the 1960s and 1970s.
Another effect is added by simple but clever cardboard cutout costumes and wigs, underscoring the “construction” of TV persona. Gouveia’s Lawrence Welk wearing a wavy cutout “hair” is particularly memorable; he moves a baton up and down, standing behind a cardboard “costume” of a plaid top and pants (also equipped with a bubble machine).
Meinwald and Leary wrote the title song “The Loneliest Girl in the World” using Bryant’s 1964 song “The World of Lonely People” as a point of reference. The imaginary encounter, conversation, and understanding that Tommy fantasizes between him and Anita are expressed through “All I See is You” and “That’s OK, Anita/Dear Tommy” sung by Anita and Tommy. The band (Patrick Marion, music director) which consists of a keyboard, drums, bass guitar, and trumpet, captures the rhythms and notes of the 1960s.
The Loneliest Girl in the World, emphasizes not only how television changed the relationship between celebrities and their fans, creating an illusion of intimacy, but how it exploits its power in the culture war. Through Anita and Tommy—who have become celebrities and cultural icons to different degrees—the musical highlights the “intersections” of those on the opposite sides of political debate and discourse, and their function as the catalyst of today’s culture war.
The Loneliest Girl in the World at Diversionary Theatre is playing through July 1, 2018.