'Dani Girl' tackles childhood cancer with humor, hope and music

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Jan. 21, 2013
Anne Fowler as Dani and Erik Jonathan Shuler as Marty travel to heaven in their imaginary spaceship. Courtesy photos by Greg Solomon. - Contributed Photo

Childhood cancer sounds like unlikely subject matter for a musical, but, like any human journey, the trip through a life-threatening illness is fraught with moments of hope and joy, generously mixed into the expected pain and fear. “Dani Girl,” the new musical currently in production at the Spirit of Broadway Theater, presents the journey of 9-year-old Danica as she navigates the rocky shoals of leukemia.

Dani (Anne Fowler), newly re-admitted to the hospital after a period of remission, is propelled by an existential question – the elemental question of any cancer patient: “Why is cancer?” Her mother (Lara Morton), struggling alone to cope with her daughter’s life-threatening illness, finds solace in her faith but can’t offer any concrete answers. So Dani sets out to seek the answer herself, intending to regain her lost hair in the process. She’s accompanied by her new hospital roommate, the self-proclaimed “Marty Luke McFly Skywalker” (Erik Jonathan Shuler), a nerdy fellow cancer patient who copes with his fear by escaping into the heroic personae of his favorite movie protagonists.

The pair embarks on a fantasy journey to heaven, intending to pose their question to God himself. They are alternately guided and menaced by Raph (Rob Grgach), a.k.a. St. Raphael, Dani’s erstwhile guardian angel. Raph proves an ambiguous character, at one moment acting the benevolent, imaginative playmate and in the next, morphing into a personification of the enemy that’s attacking both children from within. Changing personalities like his hats and accessories, Raph embodies the about-face that a change in diagnosis can create in a cancer patient’s state of mind and hope for the future.

Humor and pathos are seamlessly interwoven throughout the story. Dani decries the lack of sympathy in the “evil normal children” she thought were her friends, and calls Marty’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma a “sissy cancer.” Soon after the two meet, they engage in one-upmanship over who had the most vomiting spells in a single day. The play opens with a pretend funeral service for Dani’s stuffed rabbit, conducted in hilariously mangled Latin.

Dani’s wistful longing for her absent father, and her secret fear that her cancer drove him away, threads its way through her journey, coloring her relationship with her mother, who is struggling to contain her own bitterness. The unexpected answer to Dani’s question provides the play’s moving, thought-provoking ending.

The musical score, by Michael Kooman with lyrics by Chris Diamond, is by turns winsome, ominous and jubilant, blending seamlessly into the story line’s emotional roller coaster. Fowler is a confident, believable and affecting Dani, and the equally key role of Marty is played with convincing geekiness by Shuler. Morton is poignant as the mother whose faith is a fragile stronghold against abandonment and loss, and Grgach switches accents as easily as hats as Raph, the angel from both sides of the tracks.

“Dani Girl” continues through Feb. 10. Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday. For more information call 860-886-2378. Spirit of Broadway is located at 24 Chestnut St., Norwich.

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