Friday, August 19, 2016

"Day Nine (Last Day): Mini Reviews from 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival"

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #33
Stop the Train
Rick Guard and Phil Rice (Book & Music)

Can a musical about a bomb-vested terrorist threatening to end it all for hostages on a commuter train actually be funny, uplifting, and in the end, a totally feel-good experience?  If that musical is called Stop the Train and is written by platinum-selling songwriters Rick Guard and Phil Rice, then there is close to a 100% chance that most audience members will not only be exiting with big grins, but will also probably be humming any one of a number of memorable, Broadway-worthy tunes.  And this outcome comes from a musical that reinforces the persistently gnawing fear that most people now have that a random terrorist incident could occur anywhere, any time.  This same musical tackles some serious issues like today’s lack of genuine communication in a world where everyone is connected to any one else 24/7, the antipathy many people have for anyone slightly different from them, and what ill effects the race for more and more money has on today’s fast- and want-to-be-fast-trackers.  Even with all these dark threads streaming throughout Stop the Train, yes, they still come out the doors happy as larks!

Big stage voices well-blended and the first of many fabulous and inventive choreographed sets (Lindsay Pollard) kick off Stop the Train as commuters enter a car, ticking like clocks and singing a rousing and intense “There Must Be More to Life than This.”  As soon as they each settle into their seats, cell phones are plastered to every ear; and multiple, cacophonous conversations erupt and battle for the ability to be heard above all the rest.

Pacing up and down the aisle with absolutely no one speaking to him or even nodding his way, Eric Molton takes off his rumpled overcoat to reveal a vest full of tubes and wires that indeed are enough to halt all the train car’s conversations.  Half-spoken, half-sung and with knife-sharp voice and profusely sweating brow, the once-successful, now-in-ruins man played by Richard Ely sings of “The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back.”  He then collects all cell phones and announces that unless everyone joins with him and each other in genuine conversation, they will all die.

The bulk of the musical now becomes each person, often reluctantly and with initial resentment, telling his/her life’s story, with the other hostages slowly starting to listen and even to offer help and advice.  First up is soft-spoken, shy Rhodri, a low-level, never-to-rise-in-the-ranks sales guy who happens to have big debts due to a love for gambling.  Jarrard Richards brings pleasing vocals full of spirit and clarity as he bursts into “The Lottery Song,” fully supported by four scantily clothed chorus girls with large lottery balls. He blasts away with new-found swagger, “I’m waiting for my balls to drop.”

Similar numbers follow for each of the other travelers, most accompanied by the appearance of an excellent ensemble of dancers as well as a projected, background video.  Amy (played by Amy Forrest) is a proud medical student from the rural north of England who sympathizes with Eric because nobody listens to her either in the stuck-up big city of London.  But she has her plans for fame and fortune that she unveils in a belting, soprano voice.  “Plastic Makes Fantastic” is her answer to get noticed since she is going to make rich women more beautiful with new nose jobs and plumper breasts.

Bart is a grumpy lawyer with lots of opinions and ways of being totally condescending -- all of which he displays even under the constant threats of bomb-holding Eric.  However, he too finally opens up with some honest sharing, disrobing his tie and suit and jiggling his mammoth, now-bare belly with tasseled nipples while telling the world his secret:  Bart (John F. Doull) is one disco-loving “Showgirl” who lives to entertain in drag.  He is backed up by four glittering fan dancers right off a Vegas stage.

Nicky Lee is beautician Katy who has a knack of upsetting her fellow hostages with her snarky comments and constant put-downs.  But when she finally opens up, this working girl turns her heavily accented voice into a knock-out number of “My 10 Steps to Being Famous,” all which will she believes will lead to her grand goal of reeling in a rich footballer and becoming famous for just being famous. 

Two of the commuters have been climbing corporate ladders to gain their share of big money and power while also having shared in the recent past the same bedroom as lovers.  Hot shot, snotty Tom clearly has something on this shoulder that he blames everyone else (but himself) for putting there.  Chloe is pretty hard-hearted herself, but she is also broken-hearted (and thoroughly angry) because Tom wandered into someone else’s bed when he was supposed only to be in hers.  Several times we get to hear Jack Wealthall and Megan Pearl Spencer bring their equally superb voices to the fore; but when the two combine in “Why Did I Never Say I Love You?”, they separately and together offer style, substance, and sustainability unparalleled among this extremely strong-voiced cast.

Director Owen Phillips does a masterful job in mixing big stage numbers full of pizzazz, parody, and party with moments of soul-searching, soul-bearing, and soul-confessing.  While conversations with increased empathy and caring actually do occur under Eric’s constant threats, the drama of the terrorist situation has yet to peak once the stories are all told.  Mr Phillips’ directorial abilities are tested to the fullest as he brings the seriousness back to bear while also offering believable ways to make the individual and collective stories have endings happier than they appeared they could ever have in the musical’s beginnings. 

Stop the Train has everything necessary for a winning musical: A story that grabs and holds attention, lyrics clever and tunes catchy, characters quirky enough to enjoy but real enough to care about, and serious messages threaded into all the big-time fun.  With a cast that is the best in song and dance that I got to hear at the 2016 Fringe, with a director and a choreographer who know how to sell and sell big the numbers and storyline, and with song writers who draw on the best traditions of Broadway and the West End while adding their own flairs, Stop the Train is a hands-down winner for my vote for Best Fringe Musical of 2016.

Rating: 5 E

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #34
Not the Horse
Mike Dickinson
Paradise Green at Augustines

An over-the-top, altogether hilarious, and crime-gone-amuk comedy, Not the Horse is full of laughs thanks to three groups of outrageous characters.  Mike Dickinson writes and directs this world premiere where horse semen becomes the key to resolving the many life crises that the crazy shenanigans of these small-time, wanna-be gangsters and goof balls create.

Tony is the smooth-talking seed of the entire mess about to unfold.  Nick Sheedy plays Tony as nice-guy with not-too-smart ideas of how to make it rich fast.  When a guy agrees to buy from one quick-talking sharkie a race horse for £20K that has never raced and then that same schmuck bets with a rough-neck boss of the local underground that this no-race horse can beat the boss’s prize steed (and agreeing to pay £250K if it does not), then OMG!  How stupid can he be? 

But Tony is a actually a pretty good, all-around guy and convinces his sweet (and a little simple in the head) brother, Stan (Warren Kettle), and his smart-alecky but true-to-the-end friend, Paul (understudy Phill Bulman), to do all they can to help him save his ass from being attached to a cement block and dumped in some near-by river (or worse).  Their cock-eyed plan is simple:  Steal semen from the prize-winning horse of the man Tony owes the money, and then sell it back to him for £1MM!  Sounds logical, right?  Only thing, who is going to extract the semen ... and how?

Tom Silverton is the big boss man, Dom Jones, who goes livid if anyone pronounces his name “Jones” instead of  “Juan,” no matter how it may be spelled.  He tries to play it rough all the time; but that is particularly difficult when his assistant, Beef (Freddie Johnson), keeps pinching his butt and making googley eyes at him (something Dom seems rather to enjoy and ready to reciprocate if no one is looking).  Face (Ryan Leder) and Minge (Adam Nicholls) are his sometimes rough, mostly silly sidekicks who are eager to act tough as long as they also get to sniff the abundant coke all around them (or wallowing face-first in it if your name is Face).  And all are out to find the Dom’s stolen horse, which -- unbeknownst to them -- just happened to follow Tony and his pals home when they fouled up the semen extraction.

The third group of wild and wooly guys are the most bizarre of all.  Archie (Nicall Ross Hogan), Jerrie (Calen Griffin), and Ernie (Callum Forbes) are the ones who sold Tony his bum-deal horse, and now they want the full £20K, which of course Tony does not have.  They too are rough-and-ready toughies ... that is when they are not falling all over themselves like a bunch of Keystone Kops.

And everyone needs a gun, which a ever-cool, but quick-to-scare guy in black leather named Silk is more than willing to supply to all three soon-to-be-warring factions.  Handsome and tall Daniel Carmichael plays a Silk who knows how to control and separate the better (but maybe not good) guys from the worse (and still probably bad) guys, ensuring he gets to decide who will be the winners and who the losers in this wacky set of escapades.

With curves thrown aplenty, this twisting, turning tale is a fun ride for all.  Jokes and one-liners abound; crazy antics pop up like corn; and to a person, this cast delivers quirky, quacky characters that are impossible not to love.

Rating:  4 E

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