Review: ‘Loneliest Girl’ squeezes insight and wit from story of Anita Bryant


There’s a line from Anita Bryant’s best-known song that goes: Like a big red rose made of paper / There isn’t any sweetness in your heart.

“Paper Roses” doesn’t appear in “The Loneliest Girl in the World,” the absorbing and smartly conceived new musical that has Bryant at its center. But anyone who was appalled at her anti-gay campaigning back in the 1970s might appreciate the irony of that line about a scarcity of sweetness.

Bryant, who’s now 78 and long out of the public eye, proved a bit of a paper rose herself: The beauty queen turned singer and orange-juice pitchwoman said some pretty ugly things about gay people once upon a time, spritzing her bigotry with the perfume of putative Christianity.

But one remarkable — and admirable — aspect of “Loneliest Girl,” which just opened its world-premiere production at Diversionary Theatre here after five years’ of workshopping in New York, is the generosity of spirit that writer-lyricist Gordon Leary and composer Julia Meinwald extend to their subject.

The musical, under the fluid direction of Diversionary executive artistic chief Matt M. Morrow, depicts Bryant with a commendable complexity. It doesn’t offer excuses or absolution for her efforts to help restrict gay rights — efforts that would boomerang in a big way — but it does give her some sympathy as a kind of misguided showbiz pawn.

And the central performance of Allison Spratt Pearce as Bryant has a whole lot to do with how well that comes off.

Pearce has multiple Broadway credits and time after time has been a pivotal presence in local productions. Just when you think she’s about done it all, though, she mines fresh depths for a role like this, bringing subtleties of facial expression and movement to her conflicted character, as well as powerhouse vocals on such songs as the soulful “Anita’s Prayer.”

At the same time, “Loneliest Girl” exhibits a welcome strain of tonal syncopation — injecting off-the-wall wit with such gambits as the repeated appearances of a gloating Mary Ann Mobley, the actress-to-be who defeated Bryant for the 1958 Miss America crown.

That part seems tailor-made for the considerable comic gifts of Lauren King Thompson, who’s a riot in the role and plays several others as well.

The most ingenious aspect of “Loneliest Girl” — whose title song might be a nod to the minor Bryant hit “The World of Lonely People” — is the way it unfolds via parallel stories.

One is Bryant’s; the other is of the fictional Tommy (Sam Heldt), a fervent fan whose sense of sexual identity as an adolescent became tied up in his admiration for Bryant.

As the story progresses, those two each grow committed to their causes — which ultimately wind up colliding when Tommy, as one of those protesting Bryant’s anti-gay lobbying, tosses a pie in her face. (That’s no spoiler; the event is depicted at the top of the show.)

The scene is inspired by Bryant’s real-life pie-ing in 1977, courtesy of a gay-rights activist named Thom Higgins. But writer Leary extends the pie motif to encompass Tommy’s bonding with his bewildered but supportive mom (a warmly appealing Marci Anne Wuebben) over baking. The dessert’s later use as a projectile becomes an expression of something like tough love.

Heldt, who has been with the show from its early stages, brings a natural likability to Tommy, and a pleasing voice on such numbers as “All I See Is You,” the character’s bittersweet 11 o’clock duet with Bryant. (His falsetto did sound a little strained at one opening-weekend performance.)

Steve Gouveia, an original Broadway cast member of the La Jolla Playhouse-bred “Jersey Boys,” also has good moments as Anita’s charming but pushy husband, Bob Green; and the ace local actor Shaun Tuazon again shows his versatility in the role of Tommy’s beau, Kyle, and others.

The show — particularly the first act — could stand to be a bit shorter (it clocks in close to 2½ hours, with one intermission). That’s more easily fixable than the larger issue of whether someone like Tommy would realistically become so attached to a minor celeb such as Bryant.

But Meinwald’s score hooks a playgoer with all kinds of strong melodic lines, and meshes gracefully with such well-turned Leary lyrics as: “People like me, whatever we do, will never be people to you.”

Robin Sanford Roberts’ scenic design, with its whimsical little windows and other elements that evoke the golden age of TV, feels perfectly suited to the story, and Eliza Benzoni’s costumes, Christina J. Martin’s lighting and Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound all serve the production aptly.

And musical director-keyboardist Patrick Marion’s four-piece band brings a spare but stylish vibe to Meinwald’s songs.

This is a show with enough confidence to resist some grand concluding musical statement, in favor of an almost cartoonish number whose title sums up the futility of Bryant’s wrongheaded quest: “Oh Well.”

‘The Loneliest Girl in the World’

When: 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 24.

Where: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights.

Tickets: About $27-$55 (discounts available)

Phone: (619) 220-0097


Twitter: @jimhebert