Prehistoric Humanity, Feminism and A Killer Harmony | FIREBRINGER, Musical Thoughts

As a long time fan of StarKid, I’ve been waiting in anticipation for their latest musical FIREBRINGER to be posted online (which it was Jan 1st woot woot) for awhile. FIREBRINGER, the headlining show for the StarKid Summer Season, is the tenth full length musical the company has produced and was funded by Kickstarter back in June. Maybe though, the most notable thing about the production is that it is the first StarKid show to have women not only involved by leading the writing, directing and music composition- but also isthe first to give the show two female leads.

The show is lead by StarKid faves Lauren Lopez and Meredith Stepien, directed by Julia Albain and Nick Lang and takes us right back to the stone-age, focusing on a prehistoric tribe of early humans who are just trying to learn more about the world around them and survive from one day to another. Newly appointed tribe leader Jemilla, Peacemaker (Meredith Stepien) is beloved by her people, a strong delegator and rational (as much as a prehistoric person can be) person. Her life is changed when previous leader of the tribe Molog (Lauren Walker) tells her that everything they have previously believed about the world is a lie (from one of the tribeswomen being the sole reason the sky remains above them, to the duck they worship being just that… a duck). Things only take a turn for the worst when tribe rebel Zazzilil (Lauren Lopez) begins questioning Jemilla’s authority. One night Zazzilil’s newly created (and banned) spear is struck by lightning, suddenly giving her and the tribe something they have never had access to before; fire.

Though the above seems like a jam packed paragraph, from a writing and narrative perspective not much of anything really…happens in FIREBRINGER. The first hour just shows us the inner workings of the group and then really only does so on a two-dimensional/surface level. It’s not the kind of world building that offers any real investment in the characters, with a lot of time which could have been spent on strengthening the two leads (Jemilla and Zazzilil) diluted amongst the rest of the cast for smell ball jokes and fake comedy sketches (a great deal of time also is offered to the side plot of a typical awkward, love story between Emberly and Grunt -Rachael Soglin and Joe Ritcher).  Narratively speaking the show feels a little cartoonish, reminding me of their TRAIL TO OREGON show rather than their more poignant and character driven musical TWISTED.

In saying this FIREBRINGER is still incredibly enjoyable to watch.

Known for their crude language and ‘potty humour’ StarKid ups the ante by not relying on cheap shots to entertain. With a mix of bottom barrel humour, meta humour, and delightfully funny/light commentary (with many of their jokes stemming from real-life social issues, religion and politics) FIREBRINGER is probably one of their funnier shows. The jokes are evidence of a wider intellect, both cheeky and scathing in places, showing that a feminist message or story can be just as hilarious (if not at times more so) than less socially conscious works.

The ensemble songs and dance numbers come across as tightly rehearsed and in synchronisation. The music and voices behind these moves, similarly, are seriously good. From a funky R&B tune wherein Zazzilil announces that she’s not in the mood to do any work today, to a Lion King-esque number with excellent puppetry both of the furry and shadow kind depicting the 'monster' Snarl. The show’s music is percussion based, leading to a lot of energetic, up-beat tunes that are as fun to listen and watch as they are to dance to. Costumes and set designs also feed into the light-hearted, fun feel of the piece and the large, high-quality puppets really show that the team is taking things to the next level.

Towards the end of the show there’s a particularly haunting song called ‘Chorn’ that I love, it’s short but the vocals in it are so powerful (by Jamie Burns) that I downloaded it on Itunes.

"This is the dawn, the dawn of our time.

We are mankind, with the gift of a greater mind.

This is the dawn, the dawn of our time.

We are womankind, with the gift of a stronger mind."

I think what I found most enjoyable was that FIREBRINGER, as a goofy, creative and fun show still works feminism and politics into its core rather subtly. I’ve personally been waiting for a female led StarKid production for ages, as well as a production that features queer characters without them being the butt of a joke (and in this play they make the leads! Pretty much everyone is some form of queer!) FIREBRINGER is a great example of what feminist media is, can and should be, a refreshing change from the cliché of “strong woman who no one believes in because of her gender sets out to prove them wrong”, because such an issue isn’t around in this world. There is no question of women’s rights, leadership and involvement because all of these things just exist. Of course, it’s important to acknowledge the struggles women have faced in order to gain rights in our society, but being presented a story where female characters are powerful without being questioned for it is refreshing.

The two leading women butt heads in the show, yeah, but it’s never set up as a hero vs villian conflict; both are painted sympathetically, as women who, despite their shortcomings and occasional lack of good judgment, just want to live the best lives possible.

With a cast of seven women and three guys, men take the backseat while the ladies play out the drama as leaders, inventors, comedians, and friends. There’s no one Strong Female Character trope at work here, either; as each of the women at times present a unique dynamic that demolishes that stereotype and explores the spectrum of female power and character.

On the other side of it the guys in the show are allowed to be sensitive, in peril (without being mocked for it), and tend to show a reflective self-awareness that pokes fun at traditionally masculine/macho myths in another set of trope reversals.

As with pretty much all the StarKid productions, the cast’s onstage dynamic really shines—a testament to their long standing friendship.

Throughout all of their parodies and original musicals, Team StarKid has covered a lot of ground. Their production quality in FIREBRINGER has also skyrocketed from those early 2009 days and their debut with A VERY POTTER MUSICAL at the university of Michigan. Overall it’s clear to see the team and their work is developing and expanding into an increasingly equal and more conscious age, but their heart and style have kept pace. FIREBRINGER is not only hot but shining. Definitely worth the watch, which you can do so here.