“Dear God, don’t let New Jersey be too horrible!” prays eleven-year-old Margaret Simon, brand new to the Garden State and worried—like any girl her age finding herself in a new city—about fitting in, making new friends, and the particular challenges of being on the cusp of young womanhood. Easing Margaret’s adjustment to Jersey life are her new best friends Nancy, Gretchen, and Janie, aka the PTSes (Preteen Sensations). As for those love dreams any preteen is likely to have at night, who better to inspire them than neighborhood heartthrob Moose Freed, the first glimpse of whom makes Margaret hear, not bells, but the intro to “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” so that before you know it, Margaret and Moose are duetting the Carpenters classic, mikes in hand?

 Welcome to the world of Judy Blume as seen through the zany eyes of Dane Whitlock, who has taken Blume’s seminal 1970 novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and mashed it up with the hits of ‘70s icons The Carpenters to create Are You There God? It’s Me, Karen Carpenter, the writer-director’s hilarious, tuneful pastiche now making a welcome return to L.A. at Silverlake’s Cavern Club Theatre.

Developed first as a workshop and then briefly as a fully-staged production at the Attic Theatre, Whitlock’s take on Judy Blume retains many of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’s most memorable moments, including a number of firsts in Margaret’s life—first kiss, first bra, first period, first sanitary napkins (belted of course, this being the early ‘70s), while omitting the novel’s less spoofable concerns with Margaret’s half Christian-half Jewish religious heritage.

The result is a thoroughly entertaining hour and a quarter of campy fun, terrific tunes, and more than a bit of heart, with an emphasis on the former.

Judy Blume fans will recognize scenes direct from the novel, as when Nancy, who can easily fill a “a thirty-two double A,” advises Gro-Bra-sporting Margaret and her fellow PTSes to isometrically exercise their still flat chests while chanting, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.” Nancy demonstrates to Margaret how she practices kissing all by herself as the twosome gape in awe and horror at the bosomy beauties featured in Nancy’s dad’s Playboy. There’s also Margaret’s first adolescent boy-girl party, with its preteen party games like “Two Minutes In The Closet,” climaxing with Margaret’s first kiss, over before she knows it and inspiring her to launch into “Goodbye To Love” climaxed with some rafters-reaching high notes that would do Aretha proud.

 You’re right. That last part wasn’t in Blume’s novel, but in Whitlock’s alternate New Jersey, a Carpenters song is never more than a few minutes away, and with [title of show] Scenie winners Carey Peters and Jennifer Blake starring as Margaret and Nancy, you can rest assured that Karen’s songs will be in great hands, as they are from Joe Donohoe (as Moose Freed and Norman Fishbein), with bang-up support from Amy Procacci (Gretchen), Libby Baker (Janie), Matthew Herrmann (Evan, Phillip Leroy, and others) and Rae Dawn Hadinger (Laura Danker and others). Add to that the adults (Drew Droege as Mom and various other ladies and Brad Griffith as Dad, Mr. Benedict, and Freddy) and you’ve got a cast that couldn’t be more talented, and could not be having a better time together than they are on the Cavern Club stage.

Peters gives Margaret a genuine sweetness that makes us care about Blume’s heroine, Blake is as always a deliciously quirky delight, and they don’t come any dreamier than Donohoe, who in addition to Margaret’s crush Moose gets to play delightfully against type as nerdy Norman. And since this is a musical, it bears noting that all three are fabulous vocalists.

 Procacci and Baker provide hilarious support as Oreos-munching Gretchen and braces-sporting Janie, with Baker returning in “guest star” mode to advise Margaret in time of crisis to “Sing,” sing a song, sing out loud, sing out strong.” Griffith, Hadinger, and Herrmann have a field day (and couldn’t be funnier) playing several distinctively rendered roles each.

As for Droege, the four-time Scenie winner steals scenes left and right as four very different womem, including an Ethel Merman-meets-Phyllis Diller Mrs. Simon, a swingingly sophisticated Mrs. Wheeler, and oh-so macho PTA president Barb Stutz, who shows the girls a film about Becoming A Woman, brought to them through the courtesy of the Private Lady Company, makers of Private Lady sanitary supplies. “Wear’em proud girls!” booms out the ballsy Barb as only Droege can.

Paramount to the success of Are You There God? It’s Me, Karen Carpenter are the many ways Whitlock finds for his characters to launch into Carpenters megahits. There’s Nancy advising her friends about love by telling them “When a man is into a woman, and a woman is into a man, ‘There’s A Kind of Hush’” (all over you know where). There’s Margaret’s blues at the likelihood of being the last girl to get ‘it,’ leading into what else but “Rainy Days And Mondays.” And when Margaret tells the Man Upstairs, “I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow, God! You know where,” her prayer segues effortlessly into “We’ve Only Just Begun.”

 Other Carpenters songs to get the Are You There God treatment include “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” “Only Yesterday,” “Top Of The World,” and “Superstar,” which when sung teen idol-style by Donohoe’s Moose elicits frenzied screams from preteens and adults alike, including Margaret’s Mom and sexually ambiguous Dad. Choreographer Kim Hale finds ways to integrate movement and dance into many of the above songs.

Between-scenes recorded snippets from the alternative rock Carpenters tribute album If I Were a Carpenter are inspired choices as well.

Designwise, Are You There God? It’s Me, Karen Carpenter is as barebones as they come, with “props, wigs and costumes sourced locally at your neighborhood Ralph’s, Michael’s Goodwill, Party City, vintage shops and the actors’ closets.” Stage manager Megan Evanich keeps everything moving smoothly behind the scenes.

As regards Are You There God? It’s Me, Karen Carpenter’s performance space, it’s hard to imagine an apter venue than the Cavern Club Theatre, down in the basement of Silverlake’s Casita De Campo restaurant, where theatergoers can pick up a Margarita or other cocktail to enjoy during the show’s madcap seventy-five minutes, the upstairs bar an ideal spot to meet and greet the cast after the show.

Judy Blume probably never envisioned way back in 1970 that her characters would be belting out Carpenters hits on a Silverlake stage forty-two years later. Are you there Judy? It’s Me, Steven Stanley, telling you, Margaret is in good hands, and singing up an underground storm amidst the palm trees and beaches of sunny Southern California.

Cavern Club Theatre, Casita del Campo, 1920 Hyperion Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 17, 2012

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