San Diego Theater Review: THE LONELIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD (Diversionary Theatre)

by Milo Shapiro on June 4, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

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FROM ORANGE JUICE TO A PIE IN THE FACE

“What these people really want, hidden behind obscure legal phrases, is the legal right to propose to our children that theirs is an acceptable alternate way of life.  I will lead such a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before.” − Anita Bryant, 1977

At the height of her commercial success as a spokesperson, singer, and self-proclaimed role model for women, Anita Bryant risked everything in her crusade to put a halt to growing sympathy for gay rights. This second-runner-up for Miss America 1958 felt that God was pushing her to use her celebrity to preach this one aspect of the Gospel, gaining favor with some, but also turning millions of vocal citizens against this icon of Americana. For all her years in commercials touting the benefits of Florida orange juice (“It isn’t just for breakfast anymore!”), her most famous TV moment was the one she never wanted or lived down: a pie in the face from a gay activist while she was being interviewed on live TV.

In this world premiere, Gordon Leary’s book and lyrics split their focus between two main characters: Anita herself (Allison Spratt Pearce) and her most devoted fan, young Thomas “Tommy” Higgins (Sam Heldt), who grows up to become the man who hits her with one of the most famous pies of the twentieth century. Higgins’ character and story, more fictionalized than hers, follows his life up to the pivotal day, but Leary adds an interesting twist in Tommy’s youth: The boy is enthralled by Anita’s voice, poise, and elegance making him a gently fanatical devotee of hers. As he comes to terms with his own homosexuality and hears of her public rallies, he wrestles with the fact that the near-perfect image of his dream woman is crumbling. In an eagerness to salvage his illusion, he convinces himself that she is far more capable of changing her beliefs than he is of overcoming being gay. But how can Tommy get close enough to her to convince her?

Interspersed with Tommy’s personal growth and struggles, we watch Anita’s rise and fall from her Miss Oklahoma days to becoming America’s sweetheart to her career tumbles because of her bible-wrapped pleas for discriminatory law. The show is slightly more Anita’s story than Tommy’s, but the arc is clearly to bring them together on that fateful day in October of 1977.

Mr. Heldt is well-cast as the awkward, self-doubting youth of the late ’50s and ’60s, emotionally moving in his struggles and poignant in his escapism through the lovely young Anita. Ms. Pearce captures the essence of the central woman, with her face often speaking louder than her lines. To Mr. Leary’s credit, especially with Ms. Pearce’s interpretation under Matt M. Morrow’s direction, Bryant isn’t vilified. We see her perspective, her motives, her fears, and, in the end, her choices and their ramifications. While few attending a show at Diversionary Theatre are going to lose sleep over Bryant’s struggles, Mr. Leary’s sharing of her underbelly makes this musical more interesting than it would have been otherwise.

The presentation includes many touching and funny moments, including a device of actors frequently using delightful cardboard cut-outs of outfits rather than actually changing clothes. The one small flaw in this show is not in the production; it is that the script and music need editing. At 2 hours 35 minutes with intermission, the generally enticing storyline and mostly enjoyable songs lag at times — especially when a point gets belabored. Whole verses from a number of songs and longer-than-needed character exchanges could be cut to make this very entertaining program a truly gripping and well-paced program from beginning to end, especially with some lovely harmonies, as in “That’s Where You’ll Find Me,” the sweetest song in the show.

Nevertheless, even at its current length,  The Loneliest Girl in the World is more than worthy of being seen, enjoyed, and discussed for what it says about forty years ago and where we are now.

photos by SIMPATIKA

The Loneliest Girl in the World
Diversionary Theatre
4545 Park Boulevard #101 in University Heights
Thurs at 7; Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on June 24, 2018
for tickets, call 619.220.0097 or visit Diversionary

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