The pneumatic beauty, Barbara Millicent Roberts, was born March 9, 1959, at the New York Toy Fair to parents Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, Inc., and Jack Ryan, Mattel's toy designer extraordinaire. Equipped with a bust worthy of the Himilayas and a waist the circumference of a pencil erasure, Ms. Roberts, christened Barbie, immediately set little girls' hearts a-dreaming. Through 52 svelte years and a career arc that spans over one hundred and thirty careers -- ballerina, jet pilot, naval officer, NASCAR driver, surgeon, paleontologist, Canadian Mountie -- Barbie has inspired, provoked, seduced and accessorized her way into legend.
Now, at long last, redeeming her 1992 disastrous Teen Talk Barbie where she uttered "Math class is tough" and was duly chastised and silenced, Barbie gets her proper voice. In Walton Beacham's huggably sweet world premiere at Main Street Theatre, I Am Barbie, what she says is surprisingly shrewd and extremely funny.
Barbie (Ivy Castle-Rush) fantasizes, whines, purrs and squeals in girlish delight as she reminisces on her 50th birthday. On her odyssey, she greets bland on/off boyfriend, neutered Ken and hulking, gruff G.I. Joe (Justin O'Brien); her jealous little sister Skipper (Sarah Beth Roberts); sexy racecar driver Danica Patrick and TV's animated She-Ra: Princess of Power (Jennifer Dean); a randy cowboy and Freud (Seán Patrick-Judge). She is demure with Ken and feisty, yet still demure, with Joe. Danica teaches her how to kiss guys, and in true girlfriend fashion uncovers Barbie's dreaded secret: No female equipment. No wonder she's been paired with Ken: He hasn't got any equipment either.
A subsidiary theme chugs along with "mom" Ruth (Celeste Roberts), who is battling cancer and, later, a disfiguring mastectomy, thereby inventing Nearly Me, a breast prosthesis that was comfortable, realistic, and affordable. In ultimate irony and tribute, Handler made her device out of the same soft plastic from which Barbie was created.
A little of this goes a long way, and Beacham, undoubtedly, will prune and shape this new work to tighten the repetition (Shouldn't Barbie be on Freud's couch, not Midge?). Fortunately, he never lets the drama get too intense, capping a downer of a scene with a little comic snap. Overall, he keeps the tone light, and usually the comedy, especially the scenes with metrosexual Ken who just can't fathom why Barbie won't marry him, are delightfully constructed and laugh-out-loud.
Her doll-sized fantasy world has been imaginatively crafted by Jodi Bobrovsky (one of Houston theater's most radiant talents) with a bed made from a box of matches, a table from a spool of thread, a pin cushion as beanbag chair, buttons used as steering wheels, and assorted pink hat boxes and makeup cases. And then there's that amazing wardrobe. Thank you Macy Perrone for the marabou trim, the jaunty red beret Barbie wears on her tour in Iraq, the sequined shoes, the mermaid-tail dress that Ken tries on when we first met him, She-Ra's cascading hair, Barbie's 39FF chest!
With sure hand, director Cheryl Kaplan keeps the humor on steady boil. The ensemble cast is well-nigh irreplaceable. Starting on a high: Ms. Castle-Rush imbues the indomitable plastic goddess with a real heart of gold. No airhead, she. Even when down, she's never grumpy; after all, she's not just a fashion model, she's a role model. O'Brien is picture-perfect as sensitive Ken cursed with a hot bod, and his G.I. Joe exudes macho caveman. Dean shines comically as avenging female She-Ra; Celeste Roberts gives Ruth's conflicting types (sharp businessman vs. nurturing mother) a vibrant array of colors; and Mr. Judge and Sarah Roberts layer their sundry characters with snazzy little riffs.
We leave the world's most popular doll admiring herself in the mirror as she freezes into iconic position. "Every new costume is a new possibility," she says with pride tinged with self-awareness. Playwright Beacham is beaming, too. He's given us a Barbie who thinks, maybe not too deeply, but she's a lot more than pretty face and impossible figure. To top it off, in Main Street's superlative rendition, she's very, very funny.
Through May 29 at Main Street Theatre, 2540 Times Blvd. Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets $30, 713-524-6706 or online at mainstreettheatre.com.
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