Review: audio version of dyslexia musical Stupidhead! resonates during pandemic

Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s “radio” adaptation of their acclaimed show explores the mysteries of creativity and the imagination


STUPIDHEAD! By Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson (Outside the March). Runs to July 16, Wednesday-Friday 8 pm. $15. outsidethemarch.ca. Rating: NNNN


“What if I never find my way?” “I’m not good.” “Don’t give up.” 

We’ve all thought these things during the last 16 months. The pandemic has disoriented us, often making us feel confused, isolated and inadequate. 

But Katherine Cullen has felt this way for most of her life. And she speaks and/or sings these lines in Stupidhead!, the funny and moving autobiographical show she’s written with composer Britta Johnson (Life After).

Cullen grew up with dyscalculia, a form of dyslexia that gives her difficulty with numbers, spatial perception and organization. Stupidhead! recounts her struggles from childhood through adulthood as she and her brain (the punning title is a painful nickname) attempt to navigate everything from school and auditions to meeting people on Tinder.

The play with music has already received an acclaimed production at Theatre Passe Muraille. But because of the show’s relevance during the pandemic, producer Outside the March and director Aaron Willis are presenting it in two formats, including this old-timey radio version, streamed live several times a week. (A live, in-person version then travels to various homes later in the month.)

The material works surprisingly well in the “radio” format. Cullen and Johnson have a lively, fun connection – they’re real-life best friends, after all. Their pre-show banter (“we’re double vaxxed, and quite relaxed”) is clever and snappy. And best of all, the fact that the performance is live gives the proceedings a crackling excitement.

Near the top of the show, Cullen informs us that she loves musicals but she’s never had any training or natural ability. She doesn’t even know what pitch is. 

Those facts soon become evident, as she enthusiastically but not very sweetly belts out some songs, with Johnson providing expert accompaniment on keyboards and the occasional bit of verbal prompting and harmony. During the live stage version, we could distract ourselves from Cullen’s singing by looking at the intriguing stage picture. With just audio, however, her vocal imperfections are amplified. 

Since one of the show’s main themes is self-acceptance and pride, Cullen’s energetic singing amounts to a cri de coeur. Whatever limitations you may or may not have, you still deserve to sing your song. 

The most powerful, moving section of the show comes in the final third. It’s here that Cullen and Johnson make us think about the wonders of the human mind and the profound mysteries of creativity and imagination. 

There’s nothing stupid about that. 

@glennsumi

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