Theater Review: Local Girls at Azuka Is an After-School Special with an Edge

There's more than a hint of young adult fiction to Emma Goidel's play, but the right audiences will enjoy it.

Anna Zaida Szapiro and Mary Tuomanen in Local Girls at Azuka. (Photo by Johanna Austin)

Anna Zaida Szapiro and Mary Tuomanen in Local Girls at Azuka. (Photo by Johanna Austin)

Among Philadelphia playwrights, Emma Goidel is a rising rock star. Two months ago, her play, A Knee That Can Bend, premiered by Orbiter 3 (she’s a co-founder), was rapturously reviewed by many critics, including Bryan Buttler here.

With Local Girls, premiering at Azuka, Goidel bids to become a rock star more literally.

Knowing only the premise (high school students form a band, hoping it will help them escape a dreary future in suburban Atlanta), I wasn’t sure it was for me. I’m no fan of heavy metal — would there be a lot of music? Or would it feel like an after-school special? Worst case scenario — might it be something like (gulp) Glee?

I’m happy to report it’s not like Glee. Music of various kinds plays a significant part, but Local Girls is definitely a play.

The after-school special question is trickier, though a better comparison here would be to young adult fiction, which is often quite sophisticated, and Local Girls definitely has an edge. The story traces similar lines, focusing on the unlikely friendship between Diskit (Anna Zaida Szapiro), a studious, science-y kid living with her dad, and Riley (Mary Tuomanen), whip-smart but a hellion. Diskit starts by tutoring Riley, but ultimately becomes her band-mate… and friend. (You probably don’t need me to tell you they learn from each other.)

Still, Goidel, obviously a gifted writer, makes something of the familiar story. She has a good sense of structure — also an ear for flavorful dialogue, though here, it sometimes sounds self-conscious, like she’s trying too hard to nail a sense of youth-speak. Similarly, a few of the actors — Tuomanen especially — over-work their quirky teenage personas. Szapiro, though, is terrific. The best moments in Local Girls are the simplest ones, especially the awkward conversations between Diskit and Francis, her dad (a charmingly natural  Sam Henderson).

Or is that because I’m older that the father-daughter relationship speaks to me? I freely admit that the key audience for Local Girls is likely to be young people. I attended the show at a sold-out performance, full of what I took to be high schools students — who seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. (Hey, even I don’t think I need to be the target audience for everything.)

So in the end, maybe Local Girls is a bit of an after-school special. But for the right audiences especially, it’s one worth seeing.

Local Girls runs through March 13. For more information, visit the Azuka Theatre website.