Anika Larsen in Shafrika, The White Girl
(© Corey Hayes)
Anika Larsen in Shafrika, The White Girl
(© Corey Hayes)
People must have been telling Anika Larsen all her life that her story would make a terrific show. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Broadway belter (who will soon join the cast of Avenue Q) was brought up as one of four natural children in a household that also included six adopted siblings of various ethnicities. With dramatic fodder like that, it's rather surprising that Shafrika, The White Girl, now playing at the Vineyard Theater in a Jaradoa Theatre production, could end up being so colorless.

The main problem is that Larsen doesn't know how to handle the contradictions inherent in family life; for example, how can people love and yet hurt each other or how you can be on the inside and outside at once? Larsen's confusion has led to a show that's not so much about this legitimately unique family as about her processing it. We watch as she relives her memories and thinks aloud about them.

True, Larsen and director April Nickell stage those recollections with what they think is vibrancy. A large multi-racial cast, clad in brightly colored sweatshirts out of a 1970s kids show, plays the Larsen family with warm, convivial sportsmanship. Every re-enacted reminiscence seems selected because of how it made Larsen feel as a child, yet they have been reconstructed with the clear eyes of an adult -- one who seems terrified of offending anyone. The sharp and scary edges of the memories are dulled to the point they all register as a big "so what?" Surely, Larsen must have had memories more fraught than solving the mystery of who wrote on the living room wall.

The cast -- most of whom perform with an intentionally amateurish edge -- slips in and out of their family roles to argue with Larsen about what material should be presented. This meta-theatre back-and-forth underlines the piece's dramatic struggles while further leaching life from the underlying drama. Rather than hear Larsen scream about not wanting to deal with the few dark spots of her childhood, it would be more engaging to see her engage.

Moreover, even when talking of loving attention, Larsen seems to shrink from the limelight. And when she doesn't, her few moments of supposed ghetto fabulousness look like pale imitations. Still, when she sings, Larsen is a different person. Her voice is large, powerful, and sure, but her big musical turns are few and far between. It's like she's spent the whole evening running from her strengths, which is a decidedly odd choice when you've written a show about who you are and where you come from.