Capital Fringe Review: ‘Jilly Manilly’ by Andrew L. Baughman

Jilly Manilly (written by Carl A. Fischer and Walt F. Strasser; directed by Patricia Woolsey) riffs on the Milli Vanilli lip-syncing controversy of the late 80’s. Scout Records Owner Mark Franklin (Kelsey Saunders) has discovered a hot new vocalist named Valencia (Jahna Reed) who lacks stage presence, and sets up the vivacious Jilly Manilly (Shabreia Womack) as her lip-syncing public persona. The scheme begins to unravel as TV personality LaQuanda Rae, “Drag Queen Investigator” (hysterically portrayed by the incomparable Jase Parker), begins to smell something fishy. The play stars members of local award-winning Female R&B/POP Group MAIN GIRL (Reed, Womack and Demetria Millard). These ladies are the real deal. They have the moves and the voices to carry them to stardom!

The creators of Jilly Manilly are on to something really big in forging a “Pop Music Play” genre, but like the rock musical genre, the form would seem to require that musical numbers (at least occasionally) serve to further the plot, and that lyrics are clearly understood. I think it’s fair to say that the play is a work-in-progress, and a great joy of the Fringe festival is a chance for audiences to catch a first glimpse of a show on the ground floor of creative development. Truth be told, the opening scenes of Jilly Manilly are fairly rough and plodding. They suffer from long, silent scene changes that could be easily improved with the addition of transitional music. Opening with three lip-sync numbers in a row by Jilly doesn’t help to hook the audience, either. “All’s well that end’s well” in theatre, however, and the show eventually gathers momentum to build to an explosive and satisfying climax.

On the road to that glorious ending, there are a lot of bright spots along the way. There’s definitely a compelling story here waiting to be fleshed out. The songs (written by many artists, but primarily George Adusei and Yvette Williams) are legit and well produced. This cast is brimming with talent. Womack is a striking beauty with a mesmerizing stage presence; one reminiscent of young Beyonce’ Knowles in Destiny’s Child. Reed kicks the show into high gear when she reveals her live vocal prowess, especially when joined in duet by Millard.  As Mark Franklin, Kelsey Saunders makes a Hollywood-quality leading man. The true star of the show is choreographer Camal Pugh, whose impressive work is flawlessly executed by Justin Green and Arrington Lassiter.

With further development, Jilly Manilli may well become the next big thing, and MAIN GIRL is undoubtebly destined for greatness. The material may be better served as a film, or by production in a more appropriate venue (no joke, there was a very realistic emergency siren effect in this production that momentarily panicked some audience members into thinking the Baldacchino Tent was falling down). If this play was written as a vehicle for MAIN GIRL, however,  it does beg one question: would it not be wiser to devise a concept that allows them to sing, rather than lip sync for 80% of the show? This is the tough question one must ask when the encore song blows away every song that came before it.

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  1. Great fair review! I saw it opening night and left the show singing all the songs and amazed at the acting and dancing. This needs to go to broadway….I can only imagine how great this play could be with more improvements. Main Girl is destined for greatness!

    • Thanks Blanca (my neighbor from 35 years ago). Today was the last night. It went well and was so much fun. More to come…. but we can’t tell yet. :) Carl

  2. I was there on the opening night and am planning to go back tonight. I LOVE LOVE the songs many of which I think could be singles released by Main Girl. Camal the choreographer is a source to be reckoned with in the DMV dance scene. Main Girl is on their way to becoming the NEXT BIG R&B/HIP HOP Female Singing Group!! Now they can add acting to their repertoire. The sky is the limit for the ladies. I also commend The writing and directing team as well as all the other actors. With improvements, there is no telling how far this play could go.


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