Be advised: As I left Dani Girl at last Friday's performance, a woman rushed past me. She scampered down the corridor, sobbing uncontrollably. She waved off concerned friends, shrieking, "I can't! I can't!"
Dani Girl is that emotional. Not always either sad or funny, but an unsettling mixture of both. Because the show is a musical about children with cancer, the climax is an absolute shocker — whatever you expect at the beginning of Dani Girl, the opposite happens. And faced with song titles like "God Is Dead" and "Comaland," you should prepare to soak your face in tears.
That said, Stage 62's premiere staging of Dani Girl is brave, intelligent and astonishing. It doesn't feel like a volunteer production in the basement of a public library, but rather an avant-garde workshop at a Brooklyn fringe festival. Christopher Dimond's semi-autobiographical script is about a young girl, Dani, who endures leukemia for the second time. Her single mother clutches rosary beads and skirts total meltdown. Dani's best friend is Raph, her (literal) guardian angel, a goofy cherub with a penchant for tough love.
Dani is smart and upbeat, but she struggles to comprehend her suffering. When a new kid, Marty, shows up, they pretend to travel through galaxies, into the body, and to heaven. Their quest is peppered with pop-culture references, from Star Wars to hip-hop videos, exactly as a child would rehash them. They even sing a cheery tune about their suicide pact. Dani Girl is like the Dora the Explorer of terminal oncology. The show, directed by Dustin Wickett, takes you completely by surprise, and when your mouth isn't gaping with alarm, you're laughing hysterically or bawling your eyes out.
The show was first conceived at Carnegie-Mellon, but it seems written specifically for these actors. As Dani and Marty, Natalie Hatcher and Stephen Santa are as perfect a pair as I've ever seen in community theater; they sing Michael Kooman's challenging songs (lyrics by Dimond) with ease and aplomb. Becki Toth is predictably strong as Dani's mother, and Rob James plays Raph — and Darth Vader, and God — with astounding dexterity. The experience is disarmingly unique. Brace yourself, and be amazed.