Life isn’t fair, plain and simple. We’re all familiar with that phrase, and have to learn to accept it. At any moment some unfortunate happenstance can hinder whatever plans we have laid forth for ourselves with no other options than to carry on. For some it is a minor inconvenience, for others an insurmountable catastrophe. Oftentimes both in life and fiction these are the moments that detail the strength of one’s character and resolve. When faced with an unstoppable force will one bow to its might, or will they hold their head high even in the face of certain tragedy?
Dani Girl is a musical that focuses on the titular Dani, a young girl with Leukemia, and her various imaginary adventures conjured up in part by her guardian angel, Raph. After losing her hair to chemotherapy, she spends all of her time in a children’s ward looked over by doctors and her religious mother, as well as her new roommate, Marty, a child diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Together they occupy their time with games and adventures all in search of Dani’s missing hair and the answer to their ultimate question, “Why is cancer?”
Taking place “entirely” within Dani and Marty’s room in the hospital, the set is mostly open, leaving plenty of room for the multiple musical numbers and other bizarre activities they get up to (i.e. playing Trivial Pursuit of Death, fending off Darth Cancer, and giving a eulogy for a stuffed bunny). What few set pieces that remain onstage (two hospital beds, and a curtain) are easily movable and hide an impressive amount of props. It’s nice given that most of the scenes are some part of Dani’s imaginary world, in which instances the setting is defined more by the light design (Courtney DeGinder) and the orchestra (with Megan Pritchett as musical director). They manage to create a lot of atmosphere with very few elements. Occasionally a light cue noticeably “clicks” on or off in such a way as to be distracting, but not enough to halt immersion.
The four-person cast of Dani Girl each manages to hold their own on multiple occasions throughout the production. Naturally, Dani (Taylor Moessinger), who never leaves the stage, stands out as a vocalist and actor. Her unending enthusiasm in the face of life-threatening disease is simply infectious (no pun intended), which only stands to make her moments of illness and despair all the more striking. Early on she is most often paired off with Raph (Andrew Cannata) who has the voice of an angel (again, no pun intended). Cannata, who plays the role of Dani’s enthusiastic though someone exasperated guardian angel, is tasked with playing a motley cast of imaginary characters who Dani and Marty encounter (including a game show host, hair stylist, more than one depiction of cancer, and a drug dealer just to name a few). He clearly commits himself to every role and is obviously enjoying himself the whole time. Later on in the play Marty (Michael Reyna) tends to take more of the stage time from Raph as he and Dani begin to bond and play together. He’s a nice juxtaposition to Moessinger in that, while he shares some of Dani’s optimism, he’s able to be a little more sardonic towards their situation going so far at one point to suggest that they have cancer because they must have done something morally wrong. I’d argue that his is the weakest singing voice, but that’s only because he sings more in character if you see what I mean. Lastly there’s Dani’s mother (Ann Catherine Zarate) who I’m admittedly torn about. On one hand, Zarate gracefully exudes the relatable frustration and crisis behind the situation, and sings beautifully. However, as a written character, Mother causes a lot of frustration with me. Most of her scenes are dedicated to telling Dani that prayer and faith will help, clearly as a means to stay optimistic, but also shoots down most of Dani’s fantasies and games which are clearly making her happy and hopeful. Granted, this is all a part of the character’s growth, but it irked me how she was written.
The writing of Dani Girl in general is a mixed bag. On one hand I greatly respect some of the messages behind the story, but on the other hand some segments feel clunky and forced (i.e. my aforementioned issues with the mother). The songs are enjoyable and lend themselves to that fun, modern musical school of melody which benefits from the mostly upbeat tone, but struggles in being memorable. I remember many of the song sequences visually, and recall the superb vocal talents on display, but in hindsight the melodies and lyrics elude me. Also, near the end of the play, the religious themes that were neatly woven into the narrative begin to take over much of the story. It’s a shame because much of the musical has strong messages that I truly believe, don’t get enough appreciation in modern society such as, suffering does not define who you are, and it’s good to enjoy life even in the face of adversity. Faith worked its way into this as well and it seemed to support the other themes. However, the conclusion leaves us mostly with faith-based morals that felt inconsistent with the rest of the messages. That being said, I do respect that the ultimate discoveries made by Dani are treated with the realistic respect and dignity that the situation deserves without being dismally bleak or joyously optimistic.
This musical certainly has a distinct tone. On one hand we’re watching two children trying to discovery why they have cancer and hang on for one more day. On the other hand we have imaginary spaceships, countless references to 80s children’s pop culture, and a stuffed bear with ovarian cancer played up for laughs. But as previously stated, there’s genuine talent behind this production, and I do truly respect the messages of facing suffering with hope and optimism rather than resignation and defeat (something a lot of people need to learn these days). My issues with some of the writing aside, I can recommend Dani Girl for a surprisingly fun time in such a grim scenario.
Dani Girl continues playing at the Trinity Street Players every Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 2pm until June 3rd.