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'American Girl Live' draws on beloved doll characters for lessons in life

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'American Girl Live' shares some timeless lessons

“American Girl Live,” a Broadway-style show of song and dance, is set at a sleep-away camp where a handful of girls learn that lessons about overcoming obstacles are as relevant today as they were to girls 100 years ago.

It’s not a coincidence that everyone on the creative team and in the cast of the nationwide “American Girl Live” musical is a woman.

The show, which takes the stage tonight at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, is based on the American Girl doll characters that since the mid-1980s have been connecting little girls around the world with messages of kindness, courage and boundless possibilities.

“It’s totally thrilling,” said Sandy Rustin, an award-winning playwright who wrote and composed the lyrics for the “American Girl Live” production for Mills Entertainment. “We set out to … honor the American Girl brand — a show for girls by girls.”

That extends across the board, encompassing writing, composing, costuming, set designing, lighting, support teams and actresses.

“It’s really empowering,” said choreographer Emilie Renier. “When hitting roadblocks … you see women spitballing ideas and coming up with solutions, and now we have this core team that is almost like a family. It’s really, really special. I personally never have been a part of that in theater before.”

Helming the production is director Gina Rattan, whose Broadway credits include “Angels in America,” “Matilda the Musical,” “Soul Doctor,” “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” and Billy Elliot.”

The Broadway-style song-and-dance tale takes place at a summer camp where a handful of girls, and their counselor, have brought along their American Girl dolls, each of which comes with its own back story.

“As they’re making their ways through summer and navigating life and challenges, the camp dolls come to life to impart wisdom,” Rustin said. “(The audiences sees) what they’re able to glean from the doll’s lessons and how they translate them as they move forward and overcome obstacles.”

The American Girl line launched in 1986 with a historical line of dolls and went on to represent a broad range of contemporary characters and ethnicities. This musical highlights six of those characters, whose stories are set between 1914 and 2018.

“The American Girl brand is really steeped in the historical accuracy of the characters,” Rustin said. “Each comes with a very well-researched background, like a snapshot in the life of a girl” from various eras.

For a choreographer, that broad focus means jumping back and forth in time, going from ragtime to gospel and then disco to blasting off in space with some daft-punk undercurrents.

“It’s challenging, but it’s really, really fun. It’s not many shows you get to experience all those eras (in one production),” Renier said with a laugh. “It’s about completely resetting mindsets from scene to scene.”

Doll characters who come to life include: Rebecca Rubin (1914), who aspires to be a famous actress but faces her Russian-Jewish immigrant family’s disapproval; Nanea Mitchell (1941), whose Aloha spirit guides her through the onset of World War II when Pearl Harbor is bombed; Maryellen Larkin (1954) who wants to stand out in sunny Daytona Beach, Fla., but discovers it isn’t easy finding individuality in an age of conformity; Melody Ellison (1964), a Detroit, Mich., youth surrounded by gospel and Motown who learns to use her voice in the Civil Rights Movement; Julie Albright (1974), who leans on friends and a new law called Title 1X to win a place on the all-boy basketball team; and Luciana Vega (2018), who dreams of being the first person on Mars but has trouble lifting off at a youth space camp.

Each actress (Ashley Diane, Kelsey Pressnall, Jenna Bruce, Laila E. Drew, Monica Poston and Shelby Miguel) not only portrays one of the doll character but one of the modern-day campers encountering some of the same lessons of confidence, resilience and respect.

Rustin brings a wealth of her own experience to the production. She previously penned the acclaimed Off-Broadway musical “Rated P for Parenthood,” which was optioned by Kelly Ripa’s Milojo & ABC-TV for television development. It chronicles the ups and downs of child-rearing from the sublime to the ridiculous through comic and musical vignettes. She also created, developed, wrote and starred in her own show for Nickelodeon. Her comedy “The Cottage” plays all over the country and was most recently directed by Jason Alexander (“Seinfeld”) and workshopped by Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City.

Rustin also is at work on a Mills Entertainment production of “Bad Moms Live” (STX Entertainment) and an adaptation of the cult hit “Clue” (Paramount, Hasbro, Araca Group) for the stage. Her three other plays — “Struck,” “Houston” and “Elijah” — play in theaters across the United States.

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