A pediatric oncology ward is not the typical setting for a stage musical, but “Dani Girl,” playing through June 3 at Trinity Street Players, is anything but typical.
This new musical, with book and lyrics by Christopher Dimond and music by Michael Kooman, follows the cancer treatment and imaginary journeys of 9-year-old Dani as she struggles against leukemia with the help of her mother, her hospital roommate Marty (a young boy also dealing with cancer), and her guardian angel, Raph.
For a show dealing with such a heavy topic, the primary mood of “Dani Girl” is one of whimsy, as Dani, Raph and Marty engage in a series of games and adventures designed to embody their battles with cancer. Dani’s self-defined (and perhaps self-deluding) quest, rather than simply to stay alive, is to get her hair to grow back after it has fallen out due to chemotherapy. Her imaginary voyages, influenced by and infused with pop culture narratives and references, allow her to face these weightier issues in a context that a child her age can understand.
The latter half of the one-act musical, however, becomes somewhat muddled, confused and heavy-handed. The text seems to want to maintain a sense of playfulness while at the same time exploring extremely upsetting topics, and the balance doesn’t quite work, managing to feel both trivializing and heavy-handed at the same time.
What makes Trinity Street Players’ production of “Dani Girl” work, then, is the talented team behind it.
Director Jenny Larson and music director Megan Pritchett do a wonderful job of mining the show for its moments of humor, humanity and heartbreak. They latch onto the playful and hopeful tone of the show, keeping it from becoming morbid even in its darkest moments. The music itself plays a vital role in this, riding the fine line between moody and maudlin throughout. Scenic designer Chris Conard’s simple set, recreating Dani and Marty’s hospital room, transforms into a near-endless variety of imaginary permutations, with liberal help from projections and lights designed by Courtney DeGinder.
What ultimately makes the show so endlessly malleable, though, is the supreme talents of its four stars. Taylor Moessinger embodies the precocious optimism of Dani with boundless energy, contrasted nicely against the more low-key, geeky portrayal of Marty by Michael Reyna. Meanwhile, Ann Catherine Zarate’s nuanced performance as Dani’s troubled mother provides some of the most emotionally resonant moments of the show, and Andrew Cannata, as Raph steals almost every scene he’s in with a wide array of different personas and caricatures.
Though “Dani Girl” may have some problems as a text, Trinity Street Players bring out its best with catchy songs, an energetic pace and heartfelt performances.