Ars Nova – July 19 – August 28
The one-woman musical Shida—with book, music and lyrics by Jeannette Bayardelle, who also stars—might well be subtitled Daughter of Job. The title character of this 70-minute show seems to be a poster child for bad things happening to good people. (Spoiler alert: This review reveals the nature of many of those bad things.) We first encounter Shida as a troubled young woman, deep in the grip of a crack-cocaine addiction. Then the story flashes back to Shida’s early childhood, when she was a precocious girl, enthusiastic about the English language, and harboring aspirations of becoming a writer. What went wrong?
The problems started when Shida’s mother’s boyfriend—called “Uncle Steve”—began molesting the girl when the only thing she should have been worrying about was triumphing in the elementary-school spelling bee. As she grows up, a run of subsequent troubles follows Shida, most but not all related to the abuse. Her schoolwork suffers. She becomes sexually active and then pregnant. She dates a bullying lesbian rapper, and has to cope with her mother’s serious health problems. Finally, she sinks into the state in which we first met her.
There are songs—or song fragments—for most of these developments. Bayardelle—who starred on Broadway in The Color Purple and was also featured on the main stem in Hair—has a powerful and flexible singing voice with an impressive range, both in terms of the spectrum of notes she can deliver and her capacity for performing various styles of pop music. The songs she’s written for Shida and the other characters she embodies vary in tempo and tone, but because so many strong—often cataclysmic—events befall the protagonist so quickly, a kind of musical sturm und drang pervades the evening. However, there are moments of leavening humor (largely provided by Jackie, Shida’s flamboyant and supportive BFF), Bayardelle and director Andy Sandberg, have provided smooth transitions between the episodes of turmoil and have woven the musical sequences together nicely, and Bayardelle provides sharply drawn portraits of other supporting characters, notably Shida’s mother and schoolteacher. Still, the general effect is one of overheated melodrama. There are few elements of understatement in Bayardelle’s embodiment of the main character: as prepubescent Shida she is effusively bubbly; as the older Shida she suffers effusively. Almost everything happens at a high pitch.
One of the musical’s more effective numbers is “Tony Gotta Go,” in which Jackie helps exorcise the aforementioned bullying rapper from Shida’s life. Another is the blistering “What Kind of God?,” which finds Shida raging at heaven about all the unfairness heaped upon her. Less winning is musical material near the show’s conclusion, when Shida is going through recovery. Here the lyrics seem weak, with such couplets as “Don’t throw it all away / There will be a brighter day.”
The action of the story seems more episodic than dramatic. One promising source of potential dramatic conflict is Shida’s suspicion that her mother knew what Uncle Steve was up to, but turned a blind eye. Librettist Bayardelle, however, doesn’t follow through with this uneasy feeling of Shida’s in any significant way. Once the mother is dead and looking benevolently down from heaven, all Shida seems to feel toward her is a normal sort of loss. Had Bayardelle explored Shida’s struggle to come to terms with her mother’s possible negligence, it might have resulted in an honest and engrossing character journey. Instead, after a brisk musical pep talk from Jackie, Shida manages to enlist her own inner resources to battle her demons and ensure herself a happy ending. I was glad the character fixed her life, but the denouement seemed pat to me.
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.