Monday, August 15, 2016

"Day Six: Mini-Reviews from Edinburgh Fringe Festival"

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #20
Glasgow Girls
David Greig (Book), Kielty Brothers, Cora Bissett, Patricia Panther & MC Soom T (Music)

In 2005, a group of seven teenage women in Glasgow, Scotland said enough is enough as they watched immigration officials break down doors in the early morning and haul away children and their parents for deportation to war-torn, former homes like Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo, and Syria.  These were just ordinary girls but girls who themselves had already been traumatized by distant wars and who just wanted to be safe with their friends in their new found land and home.  These same girls moved a school, then a city, then a nation and its Parliament to action in order to stop deportations of innocent families back to places declared by politicians now safe but in fact, far from so, winning them the coveted 2005 “Scottish Campaign of the Year” award. 

Two documentaries have told their story, but David Greig decided theirs was also a story for a stage musical.  Glasgow Girls is the glorious result and has already been a hit in 2012 on Glasgow and London stages.  Now in 2016, a revival of Glasgow Girls starts Festival a multi-city tour at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe with a cast that sing their hearts out and touch every heart present as they tell a story that, in light of Brexit and Trump, is today even more timely and relevant than in 2005.

As is often true, the background hero behind any group of students who decide to make a difference in their world is a teacher, and bi-lingual instructor Mr. Girvan is the giant of a big-hearted but shrewd man in this true story who supports his immigrant girls in their courage to stand up against all odds of ever succeeding.  With a voice that is ever steady in tone quality, strong in delivery, and convincing in conviction, Callum Cuthbertson sings of his inspiration and support to these girls.  When the girls decide in rousing song and dance that it is time to strike, he convinces them a better method is to get their neighbors and then a nation to “Sign the Petition,” as they respond to sing, “Let’s show the world what solidarity is all about.”

When Callum Cuthbertson takes on the role of Glasgow-born Jennifer’s blue-collar dad, he reacts to her wanting him to sign the petition with lines like, “These people are taking all our jobs.”  Shannon Swan as Jennifer responds with a voice that trumpets in clarity and resolve, “My friends didn’t take anything ... What do you know?”  In fact, each of the seven girls, who now proudly stand arm-linked and singing to the world, “We Are the Glasgow Girls,” have voices that ring in song as wonderfully, solidly, and confidently as Jennifer’s.  Each is able to hold her on in solo; but together as a total singing ensemble, they are at their strongest with wonderful harmonies, rousing calls-to-action, and moving numbers of their deep-felt love for each other.

In any cause for justice, the core group needs recruits who join in the passion for the fight ahead.  Terry Neason adds great humor, fiery determination, and a rich voice full of fervor and verve as Noreen, a buxom lady from the girls’ working class neighborhood.  First making it very clear, “I’ll be frank with you ... I never wanted to be in a musical,” she sings in a mournful, gutternal sigh, “How do you explain to ‘em why I am in jail ... Was I bad?”  In wondrous battle-ready voice, she cries in song, “They’re my wings now” before declaring with steely eyes, “Over my dead body, you’ll take them away.”

Co-Composer Cora Bisset also directs this excellent cast through a non-stop, scene-to-scene build-up to emotional victories and arresting defeats.  Natasha Gilmore has created simple but overall effective choreography that ensures the fun and youthful energy of being a teenager – even a serious-minded, under-threat teenager – is still a great time in one’s life.  The set of Jessica Brettle has a playground look to it while easily becoming a working class neighborhood or a balcony in Parliament.  Merle Hensel’s costumes are hilarious at times (like that on a bumbling but harmless, cross-dressed Head Master, Mr. Blake, played by Laura Wilkie) and are also age and period specific for the girls themselves.  Excellent lighting and sound design and execution by Lizzie Powell and Garry Boyle/Fergus O’Hare, respectively, round out a production team that has ensured a world-class staging.

In the end, the audience walks away with hearts pounding, big smiles, maybe a tear or two ... and definitely with Noreen’s final lesson, “You can’t change everything, but you can change something.”

Rating: 5 E


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #21
Puddles Pity Party
Assembly George Square

Seeing on stage a sad-faced, over-sized clown in all white outfit and chewing a wad of gum as big as an orange (and then depositing it on the table next to him for later use) does not prepare one for the beautiful, operatic notes that start to float from his downcast mouth.  Even as he melancholy sings over and again his first lines of “Wish we could turn back time to the good ol’ days when our mamas sang us to sleep,” in big motions he adjusts his crotch.  What should be total parody and totally bizarre soon turns out to be nothing short of a love fest between Puddles and his audience.  Having toured the world many times and been seen by over fifteen million people online in his video “Royals,” this crooning clown returns to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a second year of sold-out performances for Puddles Pity Party.

Song and after song do nothing less than melt every heart present while videos of animals, families from the mid-last-century, and even of Kevin Costner (clearly Puddles’ biggest hero) project behind him.  There is much laughter along the way (after all, he is a clown through and through), but these are not usually guffaws but more chuckles of delight with a tinge of ... well, pity.  Audience members are brought to the stage to be a part of a coffee break, to elicit the presence of Hero Kevin himself, or even to sing in karaoke style.  Each is never embarrassed that much, and all are given one of the biggest, most genuine hugs they will probably ever receive.

But in the end, Puddles is really all about his music rendered by a deeply rich and altogether pure voice that can whisper and can belt with equal ease and clarity.  Anyone who arrives with some skepticism, as did I, surely leaves a fan forever.  Puddles is one of a kind to be enjoyed by young and old alike.

Rating: 5 E


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #22
Assembly St. George Gardens

International entertainer and star extraordinaire, Sven Ratzke, tours the world forty-eight weeks a year, and this year he arrives in Edinburgh in his latest show, Starman, paying tribute to David Bowie.  With elements of vaudeville, drag show, rock concert, and cellar-club cabaret, Sven Ratzke brings the high drama of Bowie to life in his own version of being a time-traveling stardust traveler.  His big-voiced, high-stepping, melodramatic numbers are supported by three exceptional musicians on stage with him. 

Unfortunately, the well-produced and charismatically sung numbers are connected by stories that are often too long and, frankly, a bit too out of this world in content and presentation.  Standing on the edge of New York’s Chelsea Hotel watching children below singing carols, swimming with Liz Taylor by her pool before visiting her wax museum of child stars, or remaining on earth as the only person left after everyone else has rocketed off to a personal star are maybe all interesting in some fantastical way; but they and others simply take up too much of the show and never seem quite that connected to the songs that follow.

But as a singer and a seller of his songs, Sven Ratzke is a true star; and for fans of the late David Bowie, this is a show well-worth checking out as Starman orbits among the clubs of the world in the coming year.

Rating: 3 E


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #23
The Vaudevillains
Oliver Lansley (Book & Lyrics); Tomas Gisby (Music)
Assembly St. George Gardens

Welcome to the Empire Club, a seedy night cabaret with Ray the Blade and his feats of knife-throwing, Mephisto and her slight-of-hand magic, the world’s only Siamese triplets called the Cerebus Sisters, ventriloquist Albert Frog with his wooden pal Mr. Punchy, and Gaston as a mime extraordinare.  Along with the Compère who introduces each after a long, sung greeting to every possible type of person in the audience (literally from A-to-Z), the entire troupe sings and dances a rousing, heart-pumping “At the Empire” to welcome us to their club.

But that is when this production of The Vaudevillians by the team of performers from London’s famed and much-awarded troupe, Les Enfants Terribles, takes a terrible, unexpected twist.  After the drunk owner of the Empire, Charlie (Richard Emerson) arrives shouting accusations and demanding the show to stop, his interruption ends up being his last words.  As the opening number resumes, his body suddenly falls through the stage doors and onto the floor, and now this cabaret show has turned into a dark (but of course funny) whodunit mystery.

The rest of the show is hearing individually of why each of the performers is a likely suspect (as of course you knew they would be).  As it turns out, Charlie held a secret over each person’s head; and all had received that morning a letter firing them and threatening to expose their secrets.  Ray the Blade was once Ray the Butcher, and in a voice operatic worthy of Sweeny Todd himself, Will Arundel shares is story about a slip of the knife’s edge that once ended in a murder that Charlie saved him from being jailed.

Tsemaye Bob-Egbe as Mephisto sings with gleams in her eyes and a voice arresting in sound how once she was a magician’s assistant until she made sure his bullet-trick did not work after catching him in his bed with another helper.  Emma Fraser, Nicola Hawkin, and Phillipa Hogg are hilarious as the bound-together-forever triplets (thanks to many ingenuous layers of costuming by Susan Kulkarni), and they sing and dance through a number of genres on their way to telling their deadly tale with a surgeon.  Philip Oakland does not sing his tale of mime school, but his silent actions and an accompanying silent film tell all we need to know about his great secret.  Finally, perhaps the best story of all in terms of humor, song, and incredible skills of ventriloquism comes from Anthony Spargo who duets (but never in harmony) with his little, hollow friend, Mr. Punchy.

The mystery’s answer (not to be unveiled here, of course) is not that difficult to uncover; but the point of the evening is the originality and fun of the entertainment itself.  The tricks on stage (knife-throwing, magic, etc.) are actually not that well executed; but the music is overall outstanding from beginning to end – including the fact that most primary actors double as musicians of violin, cello, guitar, accordion, and the like.  Kudos go to James Seager as director and Paul Herbert as Musical Director as well as this fine cast for an evening reminiscent of another era in a gas-lighted hall, somewhere on the twisted streets of Paris.

Rating: 4 E

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