50s nostalgia and modern relevance meet in world premiere musical
As massive Broadway shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Hamilton begin their tours across the nation this year, the whole world seems to be reignited with a passion for theatre. While patrons flock to enormous venues to experience theatre magic, a very special project is blooming right here at home. A collaboration between Kettle Moraine Playhouse and Theater RED brings in playwright Kristin Bayer and composer Deanna Gibeau with their brand-new Wisconsin-born musical, Girard's Nude.
Jovon Serrano as Ethel Evans, posing for Girard (Ralph Garcia). All production photos taken as stills during the rehearsal process.
Girard's Nude is an adaptation of Nancy Sweetland's novel of the same name. Ethel Evan's world (and marriage) have just grown a tad... dull. She craves a little "life in [her] life" when renowned French artist sweeps through town and names her as his new muse. He wishes to paint her... nude. (This is not done in 1953 Waldenford, Pennsylvania!) Captivated by the finer things and could've beens, Ethel is faced with rumors, scandal, and choices galore.
Musically, the original score is reminiscent of the golden age of musical theatre: think Kiss Me, Kate or Bye Bye Birdie. With this comes familiar classical charm with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek innuendo. While the accompaniment for the performance (consisting of Gibeau on the keys, Scott Feldstein on the bass, and Nick Mitchell on the guitar) is a bit thinner than the grandeur set by the standards it emulates, the trio captures the personality of the story with swooping themes and comical riffs.
Johnson, Galasso, and Serrano in Girard's Nude.
Actress Jovon Serrano plays the leading lady, Ethel Evans. If you came to this show hoping for I Love Lucy, Serrano delivers it. Her expressions and physicality are seemingly studied from the master herself - and Eric Welch pins the likeness all the way down to her red curls. Serrano then brings in her own stylings as Ethel begins to reveal a tender side.
The ensemble doesn't quite rattle the house with massive choral effect, but the characters they create outshine and amend any musical shortcomings. Dee-Dee (Wendy Johnson) and Marge (Priscilla Galasso) take their roles as gossip gals to the next level with wide eyes and squeaky voices, bringing a Frenchie from Grease sort of ditziness. Carl Liden as art curator Mr. Garth is delightfully flamboyant, and understandably frazzled working with the eccentric Girard.
The world of Waldenford fits cozily into the dual-level stage at Kettle Moraine Playhouse, thanks to the set design by Rich Hawthorne. Silky drapes melt across the scene and act as convenient censorship throughout the performance. Luxurious frames fold out from every crevice of the stage, building tableaux out of live action and framing Girard's muse as she poses onstage. The set is a pleasant blend of practical use of space and movie magic brought to life.
Serrano in Girard's Nude.
Girard's Nude is a script full of witty banter, era stylings, and outrageous scenarios. What really sets it apart from other new works, though, is the balance between nostalgia and relevance. With director Christopher Elst at the helm, this piece takes the familiar circumstances and gender roles of 50s comedy and layers in body positivity and female agency from modern schools of thought. The result is warm and encouraging - both a welcome reprieve from the world's negativity and a token of positivity to bring back to that world.
Girard's Nude runs through September 22nd at Kettle Moraine Playhouse.