Singer/songwriter Jill Sobule’s life story is on display in the charming cabaret musical F*ck7thGrade – with a difference. Sobule, the original “I Kissed a Girl” composer/lyricist, plays herself in this one-woman musical which features a band of three voicing other roles. The score is made up of her greatest hits plus four new songs. Since so many of her songs are autobiographical, they segue beautifully into the story of an unhappy childhood and later success as a performer and writer. Liza Birkenmeier’s book is based on months of interviews with some of the names changed while others are left intact.
Women are probably the target audience as the theme of the show is how young girls feel they don’t fit in while in middle school and how this affects their whole lives, as well as their uncomfortable attraction to other girls while growing up. However, unless men were the captain of the football team, they may also be able to identify with feelings of inadequacy in darkest adolescence. The show travels from Jill’s upbringing in Denver, Colorado, right up to her appearance at the wild project on the night of the show.
During sixth grade Jill desired and got a boy’s bike called a “Raleigh Blue Chopper.” At that time she wanted to be either a girl guitar player or an international spy. She had an imaginary band called “Secrets of the Vatican.” All of this was fine until she went to middle school and entered seventh grade where her batman utility belt and her camera that turned into a 007 gun made her unacceptable to the other girls who were into clothes, make-up and boys. (Cue “Strawberry Gloss.”)
When new student Mary, a “combination of Marcia Brady and a meth-smoking biker chick,” arrives Jill gravitates to her. After having fantasies about her (“Forbidden Thoughts of Youth”), Jill is invited to visit Mary and her family in their cabin for spring break, but things don’t go so well (“What Do I Do with My tongue?”) and Mary drops her as soon as they get back to school. She switches schools but being a Jewish girl in all-girls Catholic High School was not the answer.
During her junior year abroad program, she traveled to Spain where busking on the street with a classmate led to an engagement singing in a nightclub. As she had no covers, she had to write new material, one of which “Pilar” was a tribute to her landlady’s daughter. At the night club, she met a sexy lesbian with whom she had her first affair (“When My Ship Comes In.”) Dropping out of college on her return to Denver, she got a gig with a jazz band called Mixed Emotions and every other Tuesday performed at the “Open Mic Night” at the Holiday Inn. This led to a contract with a big record label (“Goin’ Down to Nashville.”) The wife of the head of the record label flirted with her which led to her controversial hit song, “I Kissed a Girl,” although nothing happened between them. So controversial that the music video starred International model Fabio. Jill became so depressed that she wrote the song called “Sold My Soul,” and stopped singing the one that made her famous.
Ten years later Katy Perry came out with her song also called “I Kissed a Girl” and there were immediate comparisons between them. (Cue:
“Bitter”) Then back in Denver she meets her high school nemesis Cathy Pepper only to find that Cathy doesn’t remember things the same way: she had been equally miserable in seventh grade thinking she was “ugly and not smart enough.” And then Cathy’s daughter, a lesbian, comes into the restaurant, who asks Jill to sing “I Kissed a Girl” which she hadn’t done at the concert the Peppers had attended. Today Jill feels that she lives through seventh grade over and over again but now she feels “It Was a Good Life.”
The songs vary from hard rock to folk rock, pop and soft ballads. The lyrics are both clever and meaningful. Aside from the famous songs that are well-known from Sobule’s albums and concerts, “I Hate Horses,” “What Do I Do with My Tongue?,” “Open Mic Night” and “Goin’ Down to Nashville” were written specifically for the show. “I Kissed a Girl,” given a dynamic rendition, is used as the show’s eleven o’clock number, while “Underdog Victorious” becomes the final song of the show.
Unlike the recent spate of jukebox musicals, here we have the actual star singing and narrating her own life story. Under the astute direction of Lisa Peterson, Sobule turns out to have a sweet and sympathetic personality as performer and actress, both modest and unassuming but able to put her message across. She is backed up by her high-powered band made up of Nini Camps, Kristen Ellis-Henderson and musical director Julie Wolf, with all three voicing the other characters. Assigned the best roles, Camps enacts a great many girls and women, making them each totally different, from sexy to teasing to retiring. Rachel Hauck’s setting with its platforms and gymnasium style floor is backed by two tiers of blue lockers reminding us that we never get very far away from our school experiences. The casual costumes by David F. Zambrano and the rock concert-style lighting by Oona Curley enhance the cabaret/storytelling vibe of the show. Although at times when the band all sing together, it drowns out the words but the sound design by Elizabeth Weidner is generally in keeping with the size of the small venue.
Whether you know the songs of Jill Sobule or not, she and her band are excellent company. The show also makes the point that is not often made that we are shaped in middle school where most of us feel like failures and envy everyone else. Aside from the show’s explicit title, the musical with its book by Liza Birkenmeier, author of Dr. Ride’s American Beach House, and its score made up of the hits of Jill Sobule is both sweet and tender in this coming of age story and what came after.
F*ck7thGrade (return engagement January 23 – February 11, 2023)
wild project, 195 E. 3rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.thewildproject.org
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission