Margaret Simon is entering sixth grade. She just moved to New Jersey with her family. She comes from a mixed-faith family and she struggles to understand her religion, herself and the changes brought on by puberty. Does this sound familiar? It’s the start of Judy Blume’s classic coming of age tale set in the 1970s, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, a serious story about a serious subject in a young girl’s life. But imagine if the story wasn’t so serious.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Karen Carpenter pokes fun at the themes of growing up in Blume’s novel. It keeps the storyline mostly intact, but reinvents it by casting Margaret’s mother in drag, dressing the characters in over-the-top outfits from the ’70s and using songs by Carpenters to illustrate the universal cliches the characters go through — everything from the joy of a first crush to the embarrassment of going shopping for a training bra.
Written and directed by Dane Whitlock, the musical takes the audience back to the years of pimples, awkward first crushes and that overpowering desire to fit in.
What Margaret (Carey Peters) wants more than anything in the story is to be normal, but the people in the world around her are anything but. Though it’s a comical play, Whitlock might be playing with that theme to ask, what is so great about being normal anyway?
The story focuses on the small things that at age 11 seemed so important. Watching an adult cast of characters act out those problems, knowing they themselves made it through their teenage years intact, makes the situations funny — especially since the characters’ problems are voiced to soft rock ballads like “Rainy Days and Mondays” by Carpenters, which one would imagine was not originally written with periods or preteen boy problems in mind.
Margaret begins the story as the new girl in town. She quickly meets her new partners-in-crime Nancy, Gretchen and Janie. Together they create a secret club and come up with the name the Preteen Sensations. As Margaret frets about fitting in with the group, she falls hard for Nancy’s brother’s friend, Moose Freed. But because Nancy says Moose is “gross,” Margaret doesn’t want to announce her feelings in fear she will be rejected by Nancy and the rest of the group.
According to Nancy, a more acceptable boy to date is Phillip Leroy. So, when at a Hannukah party Leroy picks Margaret’s name during a game of “Two Minutes In The Closet,” Margaret goes with him and gets her first kiss. Moose finds out about the party, though, and distances himself from her. Margaret is devastated. Soon afterward, Nancy gets her period and Margaret is left feeling even more alone and rejected.
The musical itself is over the top, but in a good way. The slapstick builds throughout the performance and by the time Margaret gets her period at the end of the musical, it is not surprising to see puppets with maxi-pads singing or a sheer red cloth waving in the air to celebrate the milestone.
One of the most unique ideas of the adaptation was using Drew Droege — of the popular online Chloë Sevigny parodies — to play various female roles throughout the performance. Each outfit and stereotype he plays is more outrageous and unexpected than the next and his cameos keep the audience on its toes wondering what role and what outfit he will come out in next.
At first, perhaps because of its over-the-top nature, the musical feels a little overwhelming. The characters have big personalities and the Hudson Mainstage Theatre seems at times too small of a venue to fit the gaggle of preteen girls jumping up and down, gossiping about boys and bras. But as soon as the story hits its pace, it is easy to fall back into the silly tale.
At its core, the story is slapstick with heart. Oddly enough, even though the musical focuses on parodying the middle school experience, the audience is still able to empathize with the characters and their experiences because they’ve been there. The play’s relatability becomes its greatest asset because it allows the audience to connect with the humor but also with the characters.
Middle school is not a period of time that many would like to relive. For girls, the era recalls training bras, hormones and acne. But looking back, that period in life can be comedic gold. Are You There God? It’s Me, Karen Carpenter embraces the quirks along the road to adulthood. The mash-up with Carpenters, including a special guest appearance by Karen Carpenter to offer Margaret advice, gives the musical its own voice and ’70s vibe. It might not be the musical that young girls turn to for advice on growing older, but it is the musical for people wanting to look back on their experiences and get a chuckle about what they were preoccupied with as a teenager.