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Yowling Sisters Rock ‘The Shaggs’ Into Cultdom: Jeremy Gerard

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"The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World"
Jamey Hood, Emily Walton, Peter Friedman and Sarah Sokolovic in "The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World" in New York, a Playwrights Horizons/New York Theatre Workshop co-production. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Publicity Office P.R. via Bloomberg

June 8 (Bloomberg) -- Proudly composed in the key of Be Flat, “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World” lacks a single hummable tune. And yet it’s remarkably -- insistently -- memorable.

Even if you’ve become inured to shows about the corrosive pipe dream of pop fame and fortune, “The Shaggs” is an original variation on the theme. And it’s a true story, to boot.

The Shaggs were the three daughters of Austin and Annie Wiggin, a working class New Hampshire couple (Peter Friedman and Annie Golden). In the late 1960s Austin decides to make good on his dead mother’s prediction that the girls would bring the family prosperity.

He takes the teenagers out of school, gives them two guitars and a drum kit, and virtually wills them into becoming a rock band like the ones blasting from the radio and on the Ed Sullivan show.

Oblivious of the fact that they display no noticeable talent, he dubs them The Shaggs, inspired no doubt by the British slang for sex. Then they come under the influence of an incompetent agent/Svengali (Kevin Cahoon).

It isn’t easy to make an appealing musical out of such talent-free ingredients (though no less a cult figure than Frank Zappa called the Shaggs “more important than the Beatles”).

But “The Shaggs,” by writer Joy Gregory and composer Gunnar Madsen, perfectly establishes the dead-end milieu in which these five people live. The truthful songs are more concerned with character than conventional beauty, just like the album the Shaggs ultimately released, “Philosophy of the World.” It doesn’t hurt that the story plays out, tragically, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

Austin is no less a stage parent monster than Mama Rose, of “Gypsy,” and the astonishing Friedman gets his “Rose’s Turn” moment in “Austin’s Howl,” a feral cry of rage. Under the astutely low-key direction of John Langs, with unflashy choreography by Ken Roht, Jamey Hood, Sarah Sokolovic and Emily Walton are sensational as the alternately compliant and rebellious girls. But in the end, it’s Daddy’s show.

Through July 3 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.playwrightshorizons.org Rating: ****


What the Stars Mean:
****        Excellent
***         Good
**          Average
*           Not So Good
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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