Trust me, Fringe magic still happens. Just when you least expect it, you stumble upon a rough little diamond of a show, lurking within the depths of an old church, even early in the day. Pittsburgh-based Grandview Theatre Group's version of
sharp music and take-no-prisoners lyrics ensure that Dani Girl is a remarkably playful, hope-filled story
Starting as it means to go on, with nine year old Dani leading the funeral ceremony for the latest of her soft toys that she’s diagnosed with some form of cancer, Dani Girl speedily introduces us to Ralph – either an imaginary friend, a genuine guardian angel, or Dani’s imaginary and friendly guardian angel. She’s had leukaemia, on and off, since infancy; her fairytale-loving father couldn’t cope with the stress of it and left, while her mother clings with increasing desperation to her faith in both God and in “the Lord helping those who help themselves”. A depressing opening? Far from it: Michael Kooman’s sharp music and Christopher Dimond's take-no-prisoners lyrics ensure that, at least initially, Dani Girl is a remarkably playful, hope-filled story.
It’s clear that Dani is an imaginative girl – inherited from her now-absent father, rather than a mother who insists that her daughter needs to take things seriously if she's ever to beat the illness and get back her hair. Luckily for Dani, she is suddenly forced to share her hospital room with Marty, a resentful boy with Hodgkins Disease who hides his deep-seated fears of the world behind a love of screen heroes ranging from Superman and Indiana Jones to Star Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
Natalie Hatcher is perfectly cast as Dani; vocally and physically she has the movements and attitudes of a rather ‘young’ nine year old, and yet a strong voice capable of matching every lyrical challenge given to her. Cynthia Dougherty initially has less emotional distance to go as Mother; indeed, she only really has one song to call her own – “The Sun Still Rose” – but she delivers it with heart-breaking power. Conner Gillooly as Marty proves to be an excellent foil to Hatcher’s Dani – a tad curmudgeonly, yet still with that innocence shining through the cracks in his armour. The most exuberant performance, though, comes from Rob James, who plays Ralph and all of the other characters Dani and Marty's adventures require – a casting restriction that’s cleverly referenced in the script.
Bursting with singalong melodies, witty lyrics and some surprisingly timeless cultural references (Star Trek, Star Wars and Ghostbusters to name but a few), Dani Girl is a surprisingly overlooked musical. Let's just hope that’s not the case with this particular production, which, despite its location and time slot, deserves really big audiences. Producer/director Stephen Santa and his team are doing great work that really should be seen.