This charming, engaging one-woman musical clocks in at just 45 minutes, but still finds time to showcase performer Melissa A Kaplan’s remarkably varied talents. The tale of a winsome American girl who runs away to join the circus, it features a bit of juggling, a touch of puppetry – and, of course, plenty of songs. From the moment she appears on stage dressed as a rosy-cheeked frontierswoman, the title character of Daggers MacKenzie is easy to warm to, and the story also makes some interesting points about what it means to be in search of a home.
There were some problems with the sound mix on the night I attended, but Kaplan has a good singing voice, and the musical numbers tick all the right boxes too. They’re catchy – reminiscent of songs you’ve heard before, in a thoroughly positive way – and they explore a satisfying range of genres, from the wistful to the triumphant to the dark. At times, Kaplan descends from the stage for some well-judged interplay with the audience; and she’s comfortable in character as a show-woman as well, positively demanding our adulation and applause.
The plot is very simple, as storylines for musicals usually are, but it still delivers a convincing character arc. We witness the cynical world of the circus slowly corrupting MacKenzie, turning her from the apple-pie innocent we see at the beginning into a woman who’s discovered her sexuality, but has a coldness in her heart. Needless to say though, her story doesn’t end that way, and a shocking incident sees her turn full circle and re-assess her life on the road.
So far, so good; but there’s room for more development. The multiple characters Kaplan portrays aren’t defined as clearly as they could or should be, at times leaving me genuinely confused about elements of the plot. The story loses pace in the spoken segments between the songs; too often there’s a pause, a visible transition from one point to another, when a more fluid approach is needed to maintain the energy and the mood. And there are a few moments when Kaplan’s performance shrinks in on itself – but she can unquestionably command the stage when she chooses to, so it’s just a matter of choosing to do it more often.
What’s more, at the risk of sounding greedy, when the songs are such a highlight I’d have loved to hear one or two more of them. We’re lacking the big character-defining number that’s typical of musicals – an explanation of just why the young Miss MacKenzie ran away with the circus – and her story also deserves to end with more of a hurrah.
So Daggers MacKenzie isn’t quite the finished product yet, but it’s a loveable show with plenty of potential to expand. Fleshed out with a few more tunes and some sharper characterisation, it has the makings of something quite special. I hope I’ll have the chance to see it again a little further down the road.