Blowing into D.C. from ZACH Theatre in Austin, TX, “The Girl Who Became Legend” was a spectacle of light, color, and sound. This most pleasing Western offered audiences, ages seven and up, a chance to remember that the impossible just might be possible.
…a spectacle of light, color, and sound…a visual delight from start to finish, it also touched the soul…a wonderful theater experience for the entire family.
Under the direction of Liz Fisher, the Kennedy Center’s Family Stage landed in the town of Dustbin, where dust is plentiful but it never rains, and the school teaches you to keep your head down. It is here that young Raina (played by the dynamic Blakeney Mahlstedt) finds enough fuel from her mother’s stories (Amber Quick) to believe that hope and change are possible. Raina’s claim of spotting a raincloud incurs the wrath of Dustbin’s mayor who eventually chases Raina out of town. Far outside the city limits, Raina must find the courage to learn new skills, encounter new faces, and ascend a mountain. Raina encounters legendary characters such as Calamity Jane (Amber Quick), Johnny Appleseed (Jeremy Rashad Brown), Rip Van Winkle (Paul Sanchez), and Paul Bunyan (Helyn Rain Messenger).
With music and lyrics by Sarah Saltwick (music and additional lyrics by Helyn Rain Messenger, Amber Quick, and Paul Sanchez), the show is lively and lightly comedic from the opening number to the profoundly understated final moment. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say something grows in Dustbin.
Each member of the cast was essential for the success of the show. The talented ensemble of five (Brown, Messenger, Sanchez, Quick, and Nathan Daniel Ford) formed the backbone of the musical, driving momentum and the set changes through a flurry of costumes and props. The number of transitions in the show would have been downright dizzying except that the actors pull them off with seamless choreography. In most cases, the transitions were barely noticeable, freeing audiences to immerse themselves in Raina’s journey.
The ensemble’s musical talents are off the charts. Not only can they sing (the show is full of harmonious blends and beautiful solos), but they each cycle through multiple instruments to provide the live music that forms the emotional background for the story. It was a pleasure to listen to Mahlstedt’s soaring voice. Brown, Messenger, and Quick brought dynamism and variety to each of their many roles. I’d be remiss not to mention Paul Sanchez’s remarkable characterization and use of props. The range of characters that he portrayed was commendable. It takes a powerful actor to transform a wheeled sawhorse and tin can into a believable character as Sanchez did with Widowmaker.
The creative team was just as essential. The storytelling relies heavily on the actors’ interactions with props and the environment, which Scenic and Props designer Lisa Laratta created through a delightful array of furniture, antiques, washboards, bean bags, and more. Through the clear intentions and powerful imaginations of the actors, piles of these items doubled as mountains, rockslides, wells, a train station, a corral, and a frightening wilderness in a way you have to see to believe. A changeable sign helped delineate the various landscapes. The transformation of a dilapidated “Welcome to Dustbin” sign to a freshly painted one at the end of the show provided a nice touch. Laratta’s clever use of a ladder created Paul Bunyan’s legs, a beautiful patchwork mountain backdrop, and a pleasing moment of shadow puppetry. Other noteworthy props include flying cookies, a floating rain cloud with its own violin score, and a daisy to represent hope.
Lighting design by Rachel Atkinson’s and sound design by Kellie Baldwin’s worked in perfect tandem. Their timing and choices produced a powerful thunderstorm, dry desert beds, a tranquil lake, and wind funnels. I don’t think any tumbleweeds were used, but I definitely thought I saw some because the sound and lighting were so convincing.
Costume Designer Aaron Flynn used carefully chosen accent pieces, including ponchos, lassos, hats, bandanas, and wigs, that allowed each of the ensemble members to portray numerous roles within seconds. There were also some memorable signature pieces, including a stunning buttoned vest, a smokestack hat, and Raina’s rags-to-rainbow dress.
While the show was a visual delight from start to finish, it also touched the soul. Raina learns lessons about the power of dreams, the importance of stories, and the strength of community—lessons that audience members could take with them. Even if the plot was somewhat predictable and platitude-heavy, the show was well-written and enjoyable. Young audience members shouted encouragement to the actors while their parents laughed at a Monty Python Easter egg. I even heard people singing songs from the show while walking through the parking garage to their cars.
“The Girl Who Became Legend” is a wonderful theater experience for the entire family.
Running Time: Approximately one hour with no intermission.
“The Girl Who Became Legend” runs through February 11, 2024 at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theatre, 2700 F St. NW Washington, DC, 20566. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.