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Show brings message of (American) girl power

Show brings message of (American) girl power

A Q & A with the show's writer, Sandy Rustin
Show brings message of (American) girl power
The cast of "American Girl Live" - and their dolls.
Photographer: photo provided

The latest musical heading to Albany brings beloved childhood toys to life. 
No, it’s not “Toy Story.” It’s “American Girl Live,” a musical that brings together six modern-day girls and six American Girl doll characters. 

The 18-inch dolls are among the most popular toys marketed to girls, next to Barbie. Founded in 1986, the American Girl brand has created stories behind each of the dolls, usually through various book series. “American Girl Live” incorporates Rebecca, the doll from 1914, Maryellen from 1954, Melody from 1964, Julie from 1974 and Luciana from 2018. 

Within the production, modern-day girls go away to Camp American Girl -- fictional, though many young girls probably wish it were real -- and take their dolls with them. 

“American Girl Live” comes to The Egg in Albany at 7 p.m. Friday. The Gazette caught up with Sandy Rustin, writer of “American Girl Live,” earlier this week to talk about how she created the show and how it’s bringing together kids and parents. 

Q: How did you narrow down the characters [or dolls] that you wanted to focus on? And how did you fit that into one production?
A: For the show, I created six original characters that weren’t American Girl dolls. So there’s five campers and their summer camp counselor, and they go to camp and each girl comes to camp with her American Girl doll. So the first thing I did was establish who those characters are and [figure out] which doll [each] would have a kindred spirit with. Then I went back to the American Girl brand with that information and they gave me a wide-ranging list of the American Girl characters to choose from that they thought would be great to bring to life in the show. From that list, I selected the six that I felt were best suited for the original characters that we created. I sort of played matchmaker between the original characters and the American Girl characters. 

Q: It takes place [entirely] at summer camp?
A: Yes, at Camp American Girl, which is a fictional summer camp created for the show, where campers come for a week and they bring their dolls with them. It’s a regular summer camp. There’s swimming and sports and performing arts. Over the course of the show, as the friends encounter obstacles or face challenges, their dolls come to life to impart their wisdom and help them to know what to do. When they come to life, they come to life in musical numbers that reflect their historical era. For example, Julie is the disco doll from the 1970s, so she comes to life in a disco boogie number. Rebecca, a World War I-era doll, comes to life [with] a ragtime number. And it’s subtle: The kids aren’t necessarily connecting that; the adults will connect it. But it’s a subtle introduction to the musical genres of the historical periods of each doll. They’re of course dressed in their iconic costumes from their periods in history. 

Q: What sort of problems or lessons come into play with these campers?
A: Each camper faces her own obstacle over the course of the show. For one of the campers, it’s her first time at camp and all of the other campers know each other. She’s shy and she’s not quite sure how she’s going to fit in, and she has to figure out how to speak up for herself and be true to herself and make herself open to making new friends. One of the campers struggles with relying on her teammates. She wants to do it all by herself, and she needs to learn how to work with others and accept help and ask for help. There [are] lessons like that across the whole show. It’s a lot [about] learning how to be yourself and work with others and support each other. 

Q: What was one of the most challenging aspects of writing the production?
A: I was very conscious while writing this show that for many children, this will be their first theatrical experience. So I wanted to make sure that what I was creating would not only honor the American Girl brand, but would also provide a theatrical experience that would leave kids thrilled about the theater. I feel like so much of the challenge that the theater world is facing right now with our younger generation is we’re up against screen time. So creating a theatrical piece that appeals to young children was really important to me. As was figuring out how to stay true to the American Girl brand and make sure that the show features the dolls in an appropriate way and adhere to all that was required from a corporate standpoint, while also maintaining creative integrity for the theater itself. 

Q: What do you hope kids and adults take away from the production?
A: I hope that people walk out of the theater feeling like the voices of girls matter. I think we were very conscious of that when we were creating the show, that we really wanted to have a very strong message of girl empowerment. I think our show does that. I think little girls watching the show with their families walk out knowing [that they] can and should grow up to do amazing things.  

Q: Do you feel like, so far, people have been responding well to it?
A: It’s so gratifying to see little girls literally on the edge of their seats dancing with their dolls, holding the dolls up in the air, just engaged. There’s one part of the show where one of the campers accidentally loses her doll and they have to go search to find her doll. [During] one of the performances that I was at when [the actress] lost her doll, the little girl in front of me grabbed her doll tight and whispered in her doll's ear “I will never lose you.” It was fantastic. My favorite is to go into the ladies room at intermission and just listen to these little girls talking to their moms. They’re so engaged. Their imaginations are just on fire. 

Q: What’s next for you?
A: I have two big projects coming up that I’m really excited about. I’m working with my friend Sarah Saltzberg to adapt an old Rodgers and Hart musical called “I Married an Angel,” which is going to be presented as part of New York City’s Encore series in New York in March, starring New York City ballerina Sara Mearns. Then, I’m adapting the Paramount Pictures film “Clue” for the stage. So that’s going to be a national tour that’s going to launch next year. I’m working with Casey Hushion, a phenomenal director. I have a couple of other things in the works, but those are my big focuses for 2019.

'American Girl Live'

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday 

WHERE: The Egg

TICKETS: $25-$35

MORE INFO: theegg.org

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