Friday, July 3, 2015

Review: Stargirl

Stargirl, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, at People's Light and Theatre Company, based on the book by Jerry Spinelli, adapted by Y York, directed by Samantha Bellomo, featuring Aubie Merrylees and Saige Hassler.

Review: Stargirl


By Wendy Rosenfield

for the Inquirer

Stargirl’s tale is familiar to U.S. teens, and not just because Jerry Spinelli’s 2000 novel rests on many, many kids’ and libraries’ bookshelves. Its themes stretch from the Salem witch trials all the way down to Mean Girls. In the story, upon which Y York’s world premiere script for People’s Light and Theatre (her fifth collaboration with the company, and second with Spinelli, after 2009’s Eggs) is loosely based, an oddball homeschooled student enrolls at an Arizona high school, challenges her new peers’ conformity with iconoclastic behavior--carrying a pet rat in a backpack, playing ukulele in the halls, dressing in costume--and is summarily shunned. 

York typically uses her source material as a jumping-off point, but “Stargirl Society” members (they exist) shouldn’t be alarmed. This is less a chapter-by-chapter retelling of the book than a distillation of its message. The love story between Stargirl (Saige Hassler) and Leo Borlock (Aubie Merrylees) remains, as do alpha couple Hillary (Margaret Ivey, though in the book, she’s Hillari) and Wayne Parr (Mark St. Cyr), and the kids’ paleontologist pal, the Professor (Tom Teti). And its message is clear.

Stargirl, in a fruitless effort to blend in with her classmates, asks Leo, “What do you like?” 

He answers, “I like what they like. You should like what they like, too.”

It’s a painful moment for anyone who’s ever found themselves either just outside or trapped inside a thicket of social mores, which is to say, just about everyone. It helps to see these sentiments delivered so earnestly by Hassler and Merrylees, who burst with youthful exuberance as readily as they deflate from dashed hopes. They’re sweet, funny and winning, and despite a staccato start, they, with director Samantha Bellomo’s guidance, pop out of their surroundings as if they were the only three-dimensional beings in a two-dimensional world.

This may also partly be because their supporting characters retain a cartoonish quality, archetypes-with-a-twist. Not that Stargirl fans will mind. It’s fun enough to see her brought to life, and this production is thoughtful enough to send kids back to school with some new ideas, and even grownups can agree every school could use a few of those.

Playing at: People’s Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Through Sunday, May 12. Tickets: $25 to $40. Information: 215-644-3500 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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