“Group!” is a strong, dark musical about addiction

Three women in a room, two are seated and one is standing
Group! photo by Jeff Stewart Production Photography

Group! is a lively production that is a must see

Three women in seats talking to each other
Group! photo by Jeff Stewart Production Photography

Let’s cut to the chase: the Passage Theatre Company in Trenton has come up with a powerful new musical that deals with five women and their therapy group leader over a four-week period. The six talented actresses that make up the cast deliver a strong score that grabs the audience from the first song and holds them until the finale. This is Passage’s latest musical, and they’ve come up with a winner — one that you simply must see.

Group!, written by Julia B. Rosenblatt with a score by composer Aleksandra M. Weil and lyricist Eloise Govedare, follows five women whose actions under the influence of drugs or alcohol have led them to be sentenced to attend mandatory therapy. Director Maria Patrice Amon has guided a gifted cast through the ups and downs of the plot.

Jessica, the therapy group leader (played by Liz Barnett), is young and perky, filled with tried-and-true approaches to relaxation and sobriety, leading a life of structure and routine that gets her through the days. In her charge have been put five women of vastly differing backgrounds. Sandra (Nicole Stacie), a formidable businesswoman, fell off the wagon after 15 years of sobriety. Victoria (Samantha Bruce) has an obsession with attending her first Comic-Con that covers up her upbringing. Everly (Deja Fields) is a promising high school soccer player whose knee injury led her to abuse painkillers. An older woman, Dotty (Laura Turnbull), has been the sole support of her mother for years, while Ceci (Tamara Rodriguez) is a single mother having problems with Child Services.

Three women sitting on chairs in a room and having a conversation
Group! photo by Jeff Stewart Production Photography

In the course of their 12 therapy sessions over four weeks, the group members form bonds with each other as they explore how their lives have led them to this group, and the score carries a lot of the story-telling weight. The opening number, “12 Days”, has all six women sharing their disbelief that they can achieve sobriety in the short time given them. There are powerful “I want” songs for the group members: Victoria’s “Comic Con;” Everly’s “Reggae Girl”; Dotty’s “The One Who Got Out”; Ceci’s “A Room with a Door That Closes.”

Sandra, at an AA meeting, shares her reason for falling off the wagon in the savagely powerful “Thirst.” A stewed to the gills Dotty looks at her life in the raucous “God Has a Sick Sense of Humor.” In “Monster in the Dark.” Victoria relives repressed childhood memories, while a reprise has Jessica relate her sense of the futility of her work. Finally, “One Day at a Time” brings the show to a hopeful conclusion.

It also helps that the performers have created rich, individual tapestries from the lives of the six characters. Bartett’s Jessica blends innocence with the pressures of working within a system that values following arbitrary rules over providing people with the help they need to battle addiction. Stacie’s Sandra is a woman who knows better and still cannot resist her urges. Field’s Everly struggles with her father’s expectations for her as she finds she cannot bull her way through her pain. Bruce reveals Victoria’s admiration of superheroes and the Comic Con community as part of a need to provide defenses against childhood trauma. Rodriguez conjures a Ceci who has big dreams about her future, including regaining custody of her young daughter but sabotages herself at every turn. And Turnbull’s Dotty is a delight, performing split-second shifts from wry, cynical bursts of self-knowledge to vulnerable weariness from having to care for a demanding, physically and mentally failing mother.

Passage Theatre Company has always had the ability to provide sturdy, utilitarian sets for their productions, and this one maintains the standard of quality that Passage has earned. Kudos go to scenic designer Kayla Arrell, with the help of lighting designer Alex Mannix, for creating the world of these women.

At the performance I attended, there was a lack of balance between the band and the singers. This caused some difficulty understanding lyrics and even some unwanted feedback over lines of dialogue, possibly due to the orchestra being over-miked. A proper balance will need to be checked prior to future performances.

Group! is a lively production that makes its two-and-a-half-hour running time go by quickly. It is a splendid night in the theatre, a moving, well-written, and well-acted musical, and a show Passage Theatre Group is to be commended for producing. Also, this show artfully furthers Passage’s commitment to presenting tales of contemporary life in the Trenton community, reflecting the city’s diverse makeup.

I can only hope that this show will find life after its appearance at the Mill Hill Theatre because the situations it discusses are not confined to Trenton. I cannot more strongly urge you to see Group! before its run ends; you’ll regret not seeing it.

Group! is presented by the Passage Theatre Company at the Mill Hill Theatre in Trenton through May 22nd. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 609-392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org. Passage Theatre Company requires proof of vaccination to enter the building, and masks must be worn while inside.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has recently been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre reviewers. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.