Take West Side Story’s original Maria and A Chorus Line’s original Cassie and star them together in 2008 and you have, as Girl’s Room’s publicity proclaims, two veritable Broadway legends sharing the same stage for the first time, and more than enough reason to catch Joni Fritz’s ingratiating dramedy during its limited engagement at the El Portal.

Tony-nominee Carol Lawrence is matriarch Florence Gorman, visiting daughter Marilyn (Tony winner Donna McKechnie) and granddaughter Kate (newcomer Rebecca Mae Palmer) on the night of what is supposed to be ballerina Kate’s first major starring role on the New York City stage.  There’s one hitch, however. Kate has smashed up her knee and will not be performing tonight, or any night in the near future, which leaves the three generations of women to laugh, quarrel, reveal secrets, and bond over the course of three scenes and 100 entertaining minutes.

Florence has flown in from Chicago to Marilyn’s home in the New York suburbs for Kate’s big night, but Kate arrives in a wheelchair, leg in a cast, and looking peaked.  “Don’t you think she looks peaked?” asks Marilyn, to which Florence responds, “No. That’s her complexion.  She’s always looked peaked,” setting the comedic mood for the evening.  Neither grandmother nor mother is at all pleased with today’s turn of events. Tonight was supposed to be the night that Kate would become famous, and instead she tripped over a homeless person’s cart and destroyed her knee. (Or so she says.)

Forced to talk on the phone to neighbor Mrs. Gingold, Kate insists that “I’m really not devastated by ‘my terrible misfortune,’” and something about the way Kate contemplates her ballet shoes leads us to believe that Florence and Marilyn are a good deal more devastated by the ballerina’s accident than is the ballerina herself. 

What better way to get to the bottom of this mystery than a game of “Secrets” … but first there’s a bit of catching up to do.

Grandma, who can’t wait for next year when Kate will be as good as new and dancing the title role in “Gazelle,” informs Marilyn and Kate that she’s already made a deal on her headstone to shave a few years off her date of birth. Kate is not at all happy about her mother’s plan for her to marry “Albert the Asshole,” and informs her that since she’s been supporting herself since the age of 17, she hardly needs a man to take care of her.  

Then Kate drops the bombshell. She has no intention of going to Georgia for physical therapy. “I’m done,” she informs her mother and grandmother.  “I’m done dancing.” Mom will have nothing of it. “I know who you are,” she tells her daughter, “and I know you don’t mean it.”  

The first secrets to come out as the women play their game of “Secrets” are relatively innocuous.  Kate learns that the name on her birth certificate is Girl, not Kate, just Girl. (Her mother was so sure she was going to have a boy that she’d never even thought about girls’ names.)  Grandma reveals that when she’s alone, she likes to put on a record and kick up her heels, and when Kate begs for a demonstration, Florence puts on a Bette Midler LP, a long necklace, and a feather boa and struts her dancing stuff, soon joined by daughter Marilyn. (Since Florence is Carol Lawrence and Marilyn is Donna McKechnie, the audience is in for a treat, and the two Broadway stars are rewarded with a huge ovation.)

The secrets which follow are not only a good deal tougher for the three women to tell, but equally tough for them to hear, and though in real life some secrets are perhaps best left unrevealed, no one in the audience can doubt that Girl’s Room will end happily. The pleasure and reward is in getting there.

Girl’s Room is a bit too much Lifetime television for women slash sitcom to be Broadway bound, but as a star vehicle, it more than serves its purpose and could easily become a regional and community theater favorite. Playwright Fritz writes some very funny lines, and gives all three actresses ample opportunity to shine both comedically and dramatically.

Carol Lawrence is so good (and believable) as Jewish mother Florence that one forgets that she was born a very Italian Carolina Maria LaRaia, and Donna McKechnie reveals herself to be as fine (and natural) an actress as she is a dancer.  Although for McKechnie to be Lawrence’s daughter, Lawrence would have had to give birth at the age of eight, the two are totally believable in their roles, and it is a joy pure and simple to have these two actresses (and the Broadway history they share) on stage together.

More than holding her own opposite these two legends is the lovely Rebecca Mae Palmer.  In fact, Palmer is so good, and has such presence, that it comes as quite a surprise to discover that Girl’s Room is one of the young Fredonia State University graduate’s first professional stage credits.  Take note of her name, as you’ll surely be hearing it again.

Girl’s Room benefits from the assured direction of two-time Tony nominee Lynne Taylor-Corbett, who proves herself equally adept at directing a straight play as she was at directing and choreographing Broadway’s Swing.

Girl’s Room’s set designer deserves highest marks for this gorgeous big pink attic bedroom, which fills the El Portal stage with a girlhood’s worth of Kate’s stuffed animals, trophies, and paintings of ballerinas.  (Set construction is credited to Matt Scarpino Design.) Jennifer Caprio’s costumes suit both the actresses and the characters they portray, and Jason Kantrowitz’s lighting casts the stage in a warm homey glow. (Kantrowitz has been assisted by StageSceneLA favorite Jared A. Sayeg.)

Girl’s Room, originally produced by Queens Theatre In The Park, Queens New York’s premier performing arts venue, could just as easily be making its L.A. debut on the stages of the Pasadena Playhouse or the Geffen. That it is gracing the historic El Portal is a treat not only for the theater but for North Hollywood, and for theater fans in the San Fernando Valley. Audiences may go for the stars, but they will stay for the pleasure of seeing them in this most enjoyable vehicle for three very talented actresses. 

El Portal Theatre Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
October 11, 2008
Photos: Ed Krieger

Comments are closed.