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MUSICALS FOR CRASH DUMMIES, DISAGREEABLE WOMEN, and MONKS IN HEAT: THE NINTH NEW YORK INTERNATIONAL FRINGE FESTIVAL RETURNS."SUV: The Musical" at The Village Theater, 158 Bleecker St., Aug. 13-27, 2005.
"Hercules in High Suburbia" at the Mazer Theater, 197 East Broadway, Aug. 13-25, 2005.
"Byzantium" at The Village Theater, Aug. 12-21, 2005.
"Beautiful" at The Village Theater, Aug. 20-27.
"A.F.R.A.I.D" at the Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., Aug. 12-25.
All Fringe tickets were $15.
By Glenda Frank
The full houses and round-the-block waiting lines at the exhilarating 2005 New York International Fringe Festival are clear evidence that theatre is very much alive. Not all of the 180 offerings in the 19 different venues could boast that they were genuine fringe -- experimental, fresh, honest, absurd, silly, brilliant and just waiting to be discovered – but as a showcase for new talent and unusual points of view, the 17 day festival remains an annual treat. Despite the many musical theater offerings, we will have to wait for next year to discover the next "Urinetown" meteor.
With its V8 engine roaring, "SUV: The Musical" led the singing pack. This ribald satire of the bigger-is-better auto industry and the trendy Greenies who oppose it is ready to roll – with minor tinkering -- if someone should beep. Best are the clever lyrics and rock score by Marc Dinkin, set to a preposterous but lively book by Gersh Kuntzman and performed by talented, young true believers. Director Eric Oleson makes the most of classic comedy routines, spoofs, double entendres and Greek choruses. The capacity audience loved it.
The crisis is precipitated when Dick Johnson (Christian Maurice), a Detroit CEO, creates a monster SUV that gets six miles a gallon, tips over, and wins everyone's heart, even the confused Greenies. Driving her own SUV Sarah, Dick's wife (Dina Plotch), collides with Max's jalopy – and it's love at first sight although the dazed Max (Adam Wolfsdorf) is the Green honcho. "She's the most beautiful girl/who ruptured my spleen," he tells us.
In their orange suits and white helmets (like hockey masks), the crash dummies are the most innovative feature. They not only change the sets with a robotic mastery all their own, they also fall in love (complete with a ballad) and turn Deep Throttle (Matt Knight as Mr. 203), leaking secret test-drive statistics to our green hero. Another bit of wonderful foolery is the sexual harassment scene. A canny young oil sheik (Derek Roland), aroused by a bare ankle, chases an employee in a blue burqa around his desk. When the phone rings, they revert to a working mode. It's just part of the day.
All ends happily. Although Max loses his accident lawsuit when the judge finds him guilty of driving a small car, he wins Sarah, who promises to use her SUV "Only on Weekends," the final choral number of the show.
Even 2500 years ago, Hercules was a contradiction: a dumb jock with the courage of Rambo and a 24K heart. He hasn't changed much in "Hercules in High Suburbia" a modernization of Euripides' drama, written and directed by Mary Fulham with a blues score by Paul Foglino. Mary Fulham is a multiple prize-winner with a real feel for the absurd, and Tim Schellenbaum's cacophonic suburban sound effects are a symphony.
Hercules (Postell Pringle) lives with his wife (Ellen Foley), kids and father (Hal Blankenship) in a gated community. While he's away (for three years) cleaning out stables and rescuing a friend from the Underworld, his wife is being evicted by the president of the neighborhood improvement committee for cooking ethnic food and other code violations. He sings threats; she sings complaints; her father-in-law sings about having faith; after all Hercules did build the local golf course in one day. It's all very fringe.
On his sudden return home, Hercules resolves the problem with signature brute force. But his headaches are only beginning. Through Iris – a hot dominatrix in a leather teddy with fur trimming (Ellen Foley)-- the gods curse him, and he slays his family. Daddy is there with comfort and advice, and in true Greek play style, the (in)significant others are forgotten as Hercules is rescued by the King of Athens (Neal Young), who intones like Bill Clinton. The musical concludes that "The gods are not so great/ if they are there at all." Although a little amateurish, "Hercules in High Suburbia" is a rambling pleasure.
"Byzantium," with music by Steven Jamail, lyrics by Troy Scheid and book by John Kaiser, begins with an enticing premise, but it promptly neglects its most delicious nooks and crannies. Musical theatre thrives on lyrical emotion; the songs are our windows into the characters. The conventional music and book of "Byzantium" expends all its energy on the convoluted storyline. Defying his advisors and common sense, Emperor Justinian (Mark Light-Orr), obsessed with Theodora, a popular actress, makes her his wife. But first he rejects the lovely daughter of a conquered king (Danielle Huben) by ordering her marriage to a disgruntled general. The unloved duo plot revolution. Add to this the sexual temptation of a monk, our narrator (Bram Heidinger), who has been appointed head artist of the Hagia Sophia, Justinian's pet project.
Most of the characters remain stick-figures although the blocking and pacing by director Cailin Heffernan keep the stage alive. The exception is Janet Dacal, whose transformation from actress to empress, with the help of costume designer Beverly Cruickshank, makes the production worth the visit – despite her thin singing voice. In spinning gold from hay, Dacal proved that the creators began with a vision but lost sight of it.
Sitting through "Beautiful" was a bizarre experience. We're all waiting for the rebirth of the American musical, but opening with an introspective ballad and telling the tale of an all-around loser (played by David Anders of "Alias" fame) isn't the path. Sebastian Dunne (Get the pun?) is an artist who can't paint because his girlfriend has left him without explanation. She is the "beautiful" of the title, his muse. (His new girlfriend, a waitress/actor played by Justine Campbell-Elliott, is just pretty.) His descent in the world is marked by his move to Brooklyn from Manhattan. His "beautiful" girlfriend (Nikka Lanzarone) appears, in flashbacks, in a frame as one of his painting. If this were "Avenue Q," he would rediscover himself and rise again. Described as "dark and edgy" in press releases, Dunne's descent is more about depression and self-indulgence than art.
The bland score by Stephen Barnett is one shortcoming; the confusing book by Michael Arquilla, another. It is hard to know the borders between fantasy and reality. Does Dunne have a chance to make it big and turn it down? Or is that merely an excuse for a scene? And why is he contrasted to a black artist (played by the impressive Rodney Hicks) whose career is taking off? As for the performances, singing to the rear of the stage or inaudibly to us --what was director Al Sgro thinking? "Beautiful" lasts two very long, sad hours.
The biggest disappointment for me is A.F.R.A.I.D, a feminist musical about Fanny Fern, an inspiring and little-known American activist. Instead of focusing on Fern's biography and pet causes, author and composer Susan Stoderl uses Fern's texts as the basis for a dull, preachy musical about Dr. Delusion's Home for Disagreeable Women, American Females for Righteousness Abasement, Ignorance and Docility meetings, generic abolitionists, spinsters, fallen doves – etc. The many characters are flattened into abstractions. Without a sense of poetry or a sense of humor, Stoderl's considerable talent for the operatic and beautiful counterpoint choral pieces could carry A.F.R.A.I.D only so far. [Glenda Frank]
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