‘Girlstar’ at Signature Theatre

Ha! Ready to visit a Coney Island fun-house with plenty of resounding rock show ambiance? Ready to open up to plenty of utterly blazing showbiz; “tricks and treats”? Well, step right up and enter the mocking carnival that is Signature Theatre’s production of a new musical entitled Girlstar. It is about a sweet, sneaker-wearing young woman named Tina (Desi Oakley) with a newly found acoustic guitar and musical aspirations, at least at first. She may become the next intoxicating, pop-tartelette; with mischievous, “scare the parents” naughty glory?

Desi Oakley (Tina Girlstar). Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Desi Oakley (Tina Girlstar). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Well, all is possible thanks to copious help from a diabolical dear Auntie Daniella (DC area favorite and multiple Helen Hayes Award recipient Donna Migliaccio) who just happens to be a record producer looking for the next big thing. She has set her big eyes on our naïve, dance-challenged, living-a-stifling life Tina.

All is possible since dear Auntie happens to be more than a mere record producer, but perhaps deeper down she is a sorcerer with some special “friends and mother’s helpers” in the guise of assorted emerald green liquid potions that can help her get what she wants. Oh, one last piece to add, Auntie has some dark family secrets that she keeps hidden, while she keeps a curled lime green snake very visible on her desk.

Directed with abundant, high-spirited, artistic moxie to an utter fare-thee-well by Eric Schaeffer, Girlstar is a wonderfully showy, high-flying colorful circus of a modern musical fairytale.

Set in current days, the book and lyrics are by Anton Dudley with music by Brian Feinstein. The bones that Dudley and Feinstein provide Schaeffer all he needs to pump-up subject matter that could have been soft, doughy and unexciting into a scrumptious, sugar-high evening of escapist amusement and quality entertainment.

As Daniella, Migliaccio is a burst of untamed, deliciously intimidating musical force of jealousy and calculating maleficence who casts a spell each time her bold, alto voice gets rolling. Yup, her singing most definitely tells her “bait-and-switch” side of the story in Girlstar. Migliaccio belts out sharp, ruthless lyrics (“One Eye Open,” “Seal Your Fate,” “More Clever Than You”) smoothly along with withering looks, wagging fingers and arms raised confidently high into the air. Now that was a vivid performance!

As Tina, Desi Oakley is a spunky presence, with a sweet soprano voice as she sings songs of hope for her future (“More Clever Than You“).  She is a young woman who has led a restricted life without music at the order of her kinda “red-necky’ uncle with a big heart and paternalistic nature (Is there nothing that Helen Hayes Awardee Bobby Smith can’t do and do well? I don’t think so). Tina takes a journey on the fame express even as learns the nasty price to be paid to get to the top. Selling her soul is not what she had bargained for. But her take on becoming the next sassy young featured musical star ala say, Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus, are an appealing delight, especially as she shows the audience her initial less than coordinated dancing skills. (OK, I thought of my own daughter in her own days trying to scare me with her Goth looks and dancing skills. And yes- she succeeded).

Donna Migliaccio (Daniella Espere) with Jamie Eacker (Neela), Kellee Knighten Hough (Ensemble), Nora Palka (Ensemble), Bayla Whitten (Ensemble), and Diana Huey (Piper). Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Donna Migliaccio (Daniella Espere) with Jamie Eacker (Neela), Kellee Knighten Hough (Ensemble), Nora Palka (Ensemble), Bayla Whitten (Ensemble), and Diana Huey (Piper). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Sam Edgerly takes on the role of the unconfident, “nice-guy” sorta nebbish Jeff, who falls in love with Tina; then takes his own sweet time letting her know since he fears rejection. He is at first annoying but then becomes an appealing presence. He is the good-guy, usually the wing-man to a far more handsome, confident type. Thankfully for Tina, he screws up the courage to become his own point man.

Now, this show would be much less a fun house kick without the presence of Diana Huey (Helen Hayes recipient for Miss Saigon), Jamie Eacker, Kallee Knighten Hough, Nora Palka, and Bayla Whitten as either other solo headliner pop singers or as a girl-group trio. Whenever they appear to sing, dance or kibtiz, even just standing around in the moment they light-up-the-house. Their movements and gyrations are just a spoof and a hoot. Their smiles are simply glorious. And they are having a good time being whoever they are in their characters as singers in Tina’s way or a back-up group called The Esperes. They make everyone else look and sound so good whenever they appear.

Let me fully praise the seven-member rock-skilled orchestra under Conductor Adam Wachter and the orchestrations of three-time Tony Award recipient Doug Besterman. Add in the sound design by Lane Elms. What we have is rock music that filled the senses and sounded as if it was played by musicians with happy smiles on their faces. Wachter is also responsible for vocal arrangements that are gorgeous in duets or group work. The harmony is nonpareil. Lorin Latarro’s modish, in vogue choreography was loud, brassy, and cutely naughty. There were heaps of pelvic thrusts, curvy eye-catching turns, ample spins and gyrations with arms up high

The set by Paul Tate dePoo III was a fast moving affair of scenic elements and parts flying in from all directions including the wings, dropping down from a lighting grid catwalk, and masses of curtains and scrim. There is even a trapdoor and a number of distorting fun-house mirrors. Nothing is static; adding its own kind of kinetic energy to the production. Jason Lyons lighting design was glorious. There was wattage galore that gave pop and punch to the show. His rich, halogen hot color schemes were turquoise, violets, teal when the moments were happy or fun, and more foreboding shades of green, chartreuse, and crimsons.

Bobby Smith (Uncle Derek) and Donna Migliaccio (Daniella Espere). Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Bobby Smith (Uncle Derek) and Donna Migliaccio (Daniella Espere). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

A big bravo to costume designer Helen Hayes recipient Frank Labovitz for outfits for Donna Migliaccio. They were a dandy collection, and Migliaccio changed with each scene in the two act musical.  They were deep greys and blacks with belts and ginormous necklaces and stiff winged collars that announced she was a sorcerer without a word needing to be spoken. Labovitz costumes for the ensemble singers called The Esperes were a girl group blast of form fitting outfits that accentuated their choreographed send-ups of naughty movements that also framed the show’s sweet spoofiness. The video design from Matthew Haber provided the show’s backstory in a speedy, efficient manner.

So, step this way to Signature Theatre to have a good look inside the tent flap; then just give-in and indulge yourself at Girlstar. Embrace your own musical and movement pluck and take a sip of your own magic potions. Enjoy this musical tale of a gutsy young princess who wins out over the mean auntie and finds her own voice and love along the way. It truly is a tasty treat of warm chocolate and gooey peanut butter for the holiday season.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Girlstar plays through November 15, 2015 in the Max Theatre, at Signature Theatre — 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.



  1. The acting, singing, set, wardrobe,and musical direction at Girlstar were all terrific. Donna put on a particularly fierce show, but so did all the others. The huge letdown is the material itself. From insipid lyrics to a silly plot / book, Girlstar had no central theme, no overarching interesting dynamic. The contrivances just piled up on top of each other. It left me with a big “so what?” at the end. The only thing saving this show is the raw talent that’s wasted in putting it on. Frankly, in terms of its intended purpose, Girlstar would have been a much better choice than Springtime for Hitler.


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