By Sarah Downs
F*CK7THGRADE is a quirky little musical about big dreams. Part rock concert, part personal reverie, the show ponders the lasting effect of the Wonder Years from pre-adolescence through Middle School, especially that initiation by fire: 7th Grade. “Wonder Years” because sometimes you have to wonder how the heck we got through them.
Arriving onstage almost shyly, Sobule tells her story in a slightly conspiratorial tone, combining dry humor and an unpretentious, childlike quality. She is uniquely charming. And she rocks. Sobule and company gleefully destroy the canard that when it comes to rock’n roll, “girls fingerpick; it’s boys who shred.”
Accompanied by her childhood band, The Secrets of the Vatican (in reality her multi-talented musical director Julie Wolf, and two members of the fabulous all-female rock trio Antigone Rising, Nini Camps and Kristen Ellis-Henderson), Sobule weaves the stories of her life together in a compelling, entertaining series of and anecdotes and songs. From first love to colorful early career, to becoming a bona fide star, writing hits including the revolutionary “I Kissed a Girl,” Sobule treats each moment with humor and delicacy. Her voice is so soft it is sometimes a bit difficult to hear her speak, but her music is loud and clear.
Alas, the political machinations of the music industry and its constant pressure for her to compromise began to wear her down. Like many artists, she became pigeonholed and eventually left her label. In her post big-stardom phase she has continued to be a successful, creative, artist, shining a light on social issues like LGBT rights and America’s collective obsession with image.
The show has so many delightful qualities, athough it sometimes feels better suited to a cabaret environment rather than a traditional stage set-up. Then again, a cabaret would restrict the theatrical element. Nevertheless, Director Lisa Peterson would make it work anywhere. She has constructed enough invisible framework to give the show boundaries, but has directed the action in a relaxed manner that allows for spontaneity, showcasing Sobule’s cheeky interaction with the audience. This fluidity takes nothing away from the drama of Sobule’s music, whether it be the in-your-face rock of “Raleigh Blue Chopper” or, the authentic yearning in sweet ballads like “Strawberry Gloss” and “Mexican Wrestler”.
Rachel Hauck’s production design and Oona Curley’s lighting are as irrepressible as Sobule. The simple, clever set instantly evokes Jr. High with two rows of high school lockers lining the back wall – in a snarky shade of purple. Everything pops with color. Amber spotlights wash the stage from all sides, trading with an array of cheerful saturated hues. Even set pieces have their electrified moments.
For Sobule, 7th grade was a crucible in which her fierce little rocker self was thrown into the chaos of conformity that is puberty. There was one way to be a girl, and hers was not it. She discovered that being “a weirdo” had its disadvantages, but she was not to be deterred. She found her voice. With talent and humor, Sobule has transformed her perspective into music, making peace with history, in an unpretentious, very human piece of theater.
F*CK&THGRADE, concept, music and lyrics by Jill Sobule, book by Liza Birkenmeier. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Musical direction by Julie Wolf. With Jill Sobule, Kristen Ellis-Henderson, Nini Camps, and Julie Wolf. Scenic design by Rachel Hauck; lighting design by Oona Curley; sound design by Elisabeth Weidner; costume design by David F. Zambrana.
At the wild project (195 E. 3rd Street, between Avenues A & B) for a limited engagement through Saturday, November 5. Plays Tuesday – Thursday at 7 p.m.; Friday – Saturday at 8 p.m. Peformances have been added on 10/17 at 7 p.m. and Sunday 10/30 at 8 p.m.
Single tickets start at $35; all seats are $25 during previews. Tickets are available via TheWildProject.org. Runtime 90 minutes with no intermission.