Musical talent has been a ticket out of dreary small-town life ever since Bach packed up his clavier for the Weimar court. For the Shaggs, though, music was a chore, not a choice, and talent never entered into it.
Needless to say, they didn't escape. Instead, the three New Hampshire teen girls made strange, terrible music to placate a tyrannical father and left it to posterity in a historic 1969 recording that's become a cult classic.
The Shaggs' insistent, discordant songs thankfully don't supply the score for Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen's terrific new musical, "The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World." We do hear a few idealized, smoothed-out versions of Shaggs tunes, and the title song's resigned chorus, "You can never please/Anybo-ody/In this world," is a telling refrain throughout.
More impressive is a series of original songs that manage to capture the voices of these sad, shut-in girls better than they did themselves.
"If there's no magic/You make your own magic/That's the only magic in New Hampshire," sings rebel Betty (Sarah Hays) as she tries to seduce a sensitive local nerd (Rob Moore). Dot (Jamey Hood), the dutiful daughter who writes and sings the group's loopy songs, pleads with guileless affection "Don't Say Nothing Bad About My Dad." And the sisters have a gorgeous a cappella trio late in the show that turns their humdrum lives into mournful, beatific poetry: "The sky is the color of water/Used to wash our socks."
The rest of "The Shaggs" plays more or less like a typical birth-of-a-band backstager, though with unsettling undertones of domestic abuse and unspeakable horror -- "School of Rock" as conceived by David Lynch. The authors may indeed have gone overboard with father Austin (Steven Patterson), portraying him as a holy terror consumed by primitive rage and resentment, then awkwardly positing him as an archetypal thwarted dreamer, a Tom Joad for losers.
Director John Langs' production artfully walks a line between knockout professionalism and knockabout simplicity, with a rickety, cluttered set (Brian Sidney Bembridge), witty sound design (Robbin E. Broad), perfectly unflattering period costumes (Dianne K. Graebner), versatile lighting (Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz), loose-limbed choreography (Ken Roht), and punchy music direction (David O).
The cast is flawless without being showbiz glib. Towering over the show despite her tiny frame is Hedy Burress as Helen, the Shaggs' hapless drummer and the most traumatized of the girls. Burress' heart-rending performance, which alternates mute indirection with powerful speech and song, gives a redemptive glow to the show's creepier undercurrents.
By turns hilarious and troubling, celebratory and darkly ironic, "The Shaggs" moves on its feet as surely as it moves us. Seldom has so-called "outsider art" struck so close to home.
'The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World'
Where: Presented by Powerhouse Theatre Company at [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood
When: Thursdays-Saturdays 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. No performance Nov. 27.
Ends: Dec. 14
Contact: (323) 461-3673
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes