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

Thursday, August 18, 2016

"Day Eight: Mini-Reviews from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival"

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #28
Lost in Blue
Debs Newbold

One woman stands before us and on-the-spot creates an incredible sound track of effects to accompany the solo telling of her multi-layered, multi-character story that entices and grips with its mysteries, memories, and magic.  Debs Newbold, both writer and performer of Lost in Blue, is nothing short of astounding in her abilities to hold an audience in rapt attention every second of the ninety minutes with a tale of a family still dealing fifteen years later with the aftermath of a father’s car accident.  Her story bounces us between deep inside the dreaming mind of the father’s otherwise non-responding body and on the still body’s outside where his eighteen-year-old daughter has taken on the impossible mission to use her own artistry to bring her artist dad back to life.

Even as she switches voices and persona from Annie the daughter to Sarah the Mom, Candy the Aunt to Leonard the neighbor, Debs Newbold is continuously creating and then replaying the sounds of a life-giving ventilator, cooing pigeons, a leaky roof, or seemingly dozens other effects.  She is also taking us inside the mind of Annie’s dad, Paul, as he lives in his own protracted dream inside Vincent Van Gogh’s famous house in Arles, there with the master himself. 

As her story unfolds, there are mother-daughter conflicts that appear at times unresolvable, an eighteenth birthday party that turns into a disaster, daughter discoveries about the artist within her, and a daughter’s guilt about how she may have at three years old contributed to her dad’s accident.  There is also a beautiful theme of a blossoming, loving father-daughter relationship that forms after a fifteen-year separation – a relationship where only the daughter is conscious of what is happening, or so she thinks.  All of these storylines and many more are told in a non-stop repertoire by a master teller and special effects artist extraordinaire.

Rating: 5 E


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #29
Letters to Windsor House
Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit

At 467 Peach in Woodbury Downs, Louise and Rebecca live in a flat they describe as “what it lacks in visuals, it makes up in scents.”  There, they are awakened each morning at 7 a.m. through the paper-thin walls by the thunderous hip-hop music blasting from the guys below them (to which they respond with trumpet, trombone, and mad stomping) while also hearing the lady above them sweep her floor ever so “tenderly.” 

In this transitioning neighborhood where the homeless camp in streets and parks, only to be moved by the construction of million-pound condos, the roomies live in one of the remaining, run-down council houses (public housing) built almost fifty years prior.  And their abode is crammed packed with boxes and boxes stacked high of mail they receive daily from former residents long gone – mail they have felt obligated to keep in case the rightful owners some day show up looking for it.

Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit of Sh!t Theatre perform the world premiere of Letters to Windsor House, created by them in conjunction with Camden People’s Theatre.  In white face with stripes over their eyes – a bit like criminals on the prowl – they unfold a wild and wooly tale of their decision to start opening the thousands of pieces of mail (Is it legal?) and then to re-construct the lives of the rightful recipients based on the envelopes’ contents.  There’s JD O’Hanley whom they are sure has a serious tax debt issue and Saad Madras with a penchant for gambling gone amuk.  Both get crazy songs and dance routines created for them by the two mail cat-thieves. 

But the person they get to know most and begin to worry about his well-being is Rob Jewek, who gets lots of mail about baby milk.  After rocking out in hilarious screaming that “Rob Jewek is an Adult Baby,” they go on a mission to find the real Rob and to be sure he is not depressed and about to jump off some bridge.  We share this ever-zooier journey with them, following along via the videos the two have created and are constantly showing on the screen behind the stacks of boxes and a couple of old, tattered chairs.

On that same screen, we also get ongoing glimpses of their neighborhood that is fast undergoing gentrification for the newly rich and simultaneous decimation of long-time, neighborhood businesses; run-down homes; and yes, places for street people to live in their boxes and tents.  The messages they want us to discern about such government-blessed changes are crystal clear even though the two mail-intruders spend most of their time with us telling, singing, dancing, and raving about their discoveries via others’ opened mail.  (There are also time-outs when they appear as red mailboxes to discuss their own up-and-down, but very close relationship as roomies and friends.)

The overall performance is brilliantly conceived and presented.  Louise and Rebecca’s Letters to Windsor House is brimming with off-the-wall humor, genuine heart, and not-so-subtle messages of social and political importance – the last equally relevant to London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, or scores of other cities around the globe.

Rating: 5 E

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #30
Bubble Shmeisis

Standing before us in terry-cloth robe and a long, cotton wrap down to his bare feet, Nick Cassenbaum begins his Bubble Shmeisis (Yiddish for grandmother’s story or tall tale) by inviting us to take longs breaths in and out, something we will be asked to repeat several times during the upcoming hour.  In between our collective moments of calm, Nick takes us along as he recounts going with his aged grandfather, Papa Allen, to the last, remaining schvitz haus (“sweat house” or bath house) in East London.  Once there, in a sea of wrinkled, Jewish men many decades older than he, Nick tells us how he totally unrobed and got schmeised (washed with a large, horse-haired brush and soap) by one of them – something he reenacts for us but in this case, by a selected audience member closely matching the appropriate age of one of the alter cockers.

But along the way, Nick also reminisces with us about his upbringing, Jewish and otherwise – summer camp, barbershops, a trip to soccer game with his dad (where he got no treats or souvenirs).  His memory even goes back to the first time he got to compare his schmok to a friend’s schmok at school while they both peed in a trough, at which time he discovered “what makes my schmok different from all other schmoks.”  To his horror, he realized that he had less than his non-Jewish pal, who had something “like a piece of loose bacon” wrapped around his to make it longer.

Accompanying his bubblescheisis throughout are clarinetist John Macnaughton and accordion-master Tom Baker, who sound off in kletzmer and Broadway manners alike.  As the show’s director, Danny Braverman has orchestrated Nick’s performance, clearly with a little tongue-in-cheek at times. 

With much humor and a conversational manner as if talking to his new, best friends (that’s us), Nick Cassenbaum entertains with his stories and educates about near-extinct, Jewish bathhouses.  But equally important, he also provides an intimate, heart-warming look at how he discovered that day in the Canning Town Schvitz what is important to him about who he is and what he wants to pass on someday to his kids and grandkids.  And that leaves everyone smiling and even kvelling for him as they leave the small theatre.

Rating: 4 E

Photo by Gence Barbar

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #31
In Fidelity
Rob Drummond

How can one see almost thirty-five shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and not see one complete turkey?  The inevitable finally happened for me in Show #31, even at the revered and consistently reliable Traverse Theatre.  So bad (in my opinion) is this world premiere, that I would have left a few minutes into it; but my and my husband’s seats were positioned such that we would have not only disturbed the entire packed-to-the-gills audience, but would likely have been pulled onto the set and into the abominable show.

Well-known Scottish playwright and actor, Rob Drummond, brings his newest work to the Fringe, created in conjunction with High Tide and Traverse Theatre.  Touted as a gift to his wife for their fifteenth anniversary (maybe he should have gone with the traditional choice of crystal?), In Fidelity is nothing more than a live reality show ... and a bad one, at that.  (Full confession:  I hate reality TV, which I refuse to watch or follow; so how can I be unbiased about this new show?) 

Audience members who are single get to volunteer to be on stage to whittle several volunteers down to two whom Rob judges to be most compatible.  Those two are then the focus for the next hour or so to see if they could possibly be a permanent pair (or at least a one-time date).  The two are subjected to increasingly personal questions about themselves and their love-life preferences (but with always the option not to answer anything they do not want to reveal), to reading the script of a play, to having unscripted conversations with each other in front of a full audience, and other inane (and I pick the word purposefully) assignments given them by Rob the host. 

And, to make matters worse, Rob spices the entire proceeding with his own thoughts and research about love (and his own experience of creating an online dating persona).  He also asks questions of the audience like “What is your definition of love?  To my horror, a number eagerly volunteer to answer him with serious, syrupy-sweet answers -- including a twenty-something guy sitting next to me who by this point, seems to be really emotionally caught up in this contrived mess!

As if this show could not be more atrocious, the three initial volunteers the day I stumbled mistakenly into the arena are two sisters and a bi-sexual man.  (Rob was very disappointed there were only three; I think he normally gets twice that many.)  Now, everyone already knows that the two sisters cannot be the final two participants, or we would have possible incest.  (Mr. Nice Guy, Rob Drummond, certainly is not about to go there.)  So, the contest becomes which of the two, single sisters is going to be tested, interviewed, and put in total embarrassing spotlight with Mr. Bi-Man for over an hour to see if the audience and the lucky pair themselves will elect that they should go on a real date.  To make matters worse, the final two are soon taking this seriously and often also taking (especially the guy) a L-O-N-G time to think about and answer the questions posed to them now by not only Rob, but also by audience members.

(Kill me now, please.)  What really pissed me off the most -- and frankly scared me a lot -- is how much most everyone but me and my hubby were clearly into this whole eighty minutes of pure torture and how loudly and enthusiastically most of them applauded at the end (with the young guy next to me quickly jumping to his feet for his own standing ovation!).

So, maybe I am just a weird or cynical guy and the one person in all the world that hates anything that looks like reality TV being produced by a legitimate company like Traverse as live theatre.  Having said that, I can in no way with good conscience recommend anyone go see In Fidelity (unless live dating games involving random people off the street placed in the starring roles is your thing).

Rating: 1 E

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #31
Ross Dunsmore
Traverse Theatre

Three couples who are at very different stages in their lives and their relationships all come to realize that while food for varying reasons is a key concern and focus for them, the real milk for life’s sustenance is love.  That realization comes to each with some very difficult choices and sacrifices, and crises of conscience come into bear at some point for at least one member of each couple as the meaning of true, unconditional love becomes finally clear.  Traverse Theatre premieres as part of the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival the first full-length play, Milk, by actor and writer, Ross Dunsmore.  This initial outing, directed by the company’s Artistic Director Orla O’Louglin, at times brings smiles and draws big laughs, at times elicits gasps and an impulse to look away, and at times ensures more than a few tears are trickling down audience cheeks. 

With both a birth and a death playing major roles in the play’s stories, Milk spans and touches epic-size themes by focusing on the day-to-day details of the three couples, often dealing something about food.  Cyril and May are an elderly couple holding out in a building condemned for destruction with no heat, no food, no light; but they have each other and memories stretching back to World War II, which May says, “You won the war ... for me ... You’re my hero.”  Tam Dean Burn and Ann Louise Ross both give touching, heart-wrenching performances as their story intertwines with the other two.  When May dances with Tam her last dance in life to “You’ll Never Know Just How Much I Love You,” our hearts break almost as much as his.  Their love is life itself, and it is that love that leads Cyril to take an action that jeopardizes his own life’s well-being.

On the other end of the age spectrum, Helen Mallon and Cristian Ortega are teens Steph and Ash who are big buds, with Ash clearly wanting -- even demanding -- much more.  Steph is bold, brassy, and even crass in her attempts to get Ash to do more than concentrate on his PERi-PERi chicken from Nando’s.  Ash is not sure he is ready and tries to joke, make nice, and just be pals.  Steph’s hormones are clearly bubbling over, and she is pushing for much more.  Both actors are superb in putting the issues of teens in lust, in love, in like and in between – and being totally confused by it all.

Steph’s teacher, Danny, is where she turns for some possible relieving of her need for love and attention.  Trouble is, Danny is twice her age; she is under-age; and Danny has his own issues with a wife who has just had a baby that she now refuses to feed because her nipples are bleeding.  Ryan Fletcher as Danny is sex-hungry and sex-deprived while his wife is in final pregnancy and not interested. Once she has given birth, Melody Grove as Nicole freaks out that the one thing she most wanted to do as a mother -- provide her baby life’s sustenance through her breasts -- is impossible for her to do.  Refusing to allow Ryan near her or the baby leads to a relationship crisis that provides both actors great opportunities to shine in their skills.

Further intersections of the three stories occur in Ross Dunsmore’s script, offering both more life-threatening crises as well as life-affirming resolutions.  Fred Meller has designed a large, rectangular platform/table that centers the stage, complete with doors that open to support the different couples’ stories and to offer magical avenues for needed refuge or escape.  His high-tech design is greatly defined and enhanced by vertical strips of light that cross the back stage that Philip Gladwell has designed to combine with other lighting to highlight the different and intertwining scenes as well as the moods within them.  Danny Krass pulls everything together with a sound design that fits the wide range of ages and the subject matter of love and life.

Milk at times becomes a bit jolting in its back-and-forth stories, sometimes leaving one a bit too soon before there is understanding clearly of what is happening and particularly, why.  But overall, the direction is flawless in ensuring that the sum of the parts is greater than any of them separately.  What sustains us in life becomes evident by stepping back and taking in the total of the difficult journeys these six undergo, journeys made all the clearer and richer in meaning by stellar performances all.

Rating: 4 E

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"Day Seven: The 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival"

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #24
Great Expectations
Peter Fanning (Book): John Moore (Music)

Taking one of the most beloved novels of all times and its two-dozen-plus major characters – several now iconic in their own rights – and turning that classic into a new musical with soaring music and a comprehensible book is quite a daunting task.  When the impressive world premiere has been written by faculty and produced by the students of a secondary school and then presented for the world to judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then the accomplishment is even more impressive.  But for England’s Shrewsbury School, this is just the next in a long stream of Fringe appearances and premieres going back to 1993; and their latest musical, Great Expectations (Peter Fanning, book, and John Moore, music) takes the Charles Dickens treasured tome and breathes new light and insight into its well-known, much-read story.

For those needing a refresher, this is the story of orphaned Pip, raised in Kent by his cranky aunt and her big-hearted blacksmith husband, Joe.  In the opening of the story, Pip meets an escaped convict, Magwitch, in a church graveyard and steals sustenance for his hunger to help the poor man out.  Pip soon happens into service with an eccentric lady, Miss Haversham, who wears always an old, tattered wedding gown and lives in a large house full of “beetles and bats, shadows and rats” with a young, beautiful girl named Estrella.  Pip is employed to play with Estrella; and even at a young age, he falls in love with her.  Miss Haversham, who was once spurned by a no-show groom-to-be, is raising Estrella to woo and then reject and break as many hearts, like Pip’s, as possible, for payback for her life of disappointment.

Pip’s fortune shifts even more when he is informed by a London lawyer named Jaggers that he has an anonymous benefactor who is providing him a small fortune if he will head to the big city and engage a tutor to become a gentleman.  Off Pip does go, and the adventures of a life continue with many twists and turns, ups and downs, but with a goal always in Pip’s mind of returning and marrying Estrella.

From their opening lines of “homeward on a journey across the sea,” the full twenty-plus ensemble excels when singing as a mass choir in its full-sounding, perfectly blended harmonies.  On stage for most of the play as both participants and as mindful observers, the cast members bring collectively strong voices and good abilities in the inventive choreography that has them crawling about on stage as part of seedy London’s underbelly, falling over themselves in drunken good time while belting “A Bumper of Wine,” or cutting a rug in twenties style while jazzily singing “The Aristocratic Rag.”

Pip is ably and sensitively played in both his young and older selves by Toby Pattinson and Luke Lloyd Jones, respectively.  Mr. Jones in particular shines forth time and again in songs like “Estrella” with naturally clear vocals that seem always to have power to spare without any sense of ever over-singing.  Rony Dootson as Joe is the life-long friend any boy would die to have, and his solos are rendered with full heart and soul of a good man.  Cury Cabral brings a solid, deep voice for Pip’s lawyer, Jaggers, while Angus Kincaid is the escaped convict Magwitch whose rough ways and swaggers and raw, guttural voice of song hide the gratitude that he will one day show young Pip.

Emily Skelton rarely stops twisting madly her never-used wedding veil as she displays both the pitiful and the spiteful states of the elderly Miss Haversham.  Antonia Wordie is her ward, Estrella, and has a haunting, isolated sense about her as she watches first with scorned puzzlement and then with increasing interest the rapped attention Pip gives her from the start.  When she and Pip reunite in later years, her voice rings true as she sings of her love for that boy, now this man.

The one issue of this production is that most of the story is sung, often in dense and fast-sung lyrics.  At times, whether by certain soloists or by full chorus, the gist of the message is clear; but specific details are difficult to discern. 

The gifted chorus reminds us at the end that we have witnessed “the journey of a lifetime, when you grow to be a man;” and they and Pip teach us in this well-trod, but newly focused story of Great Expectations that “there’s a time for forgiving and being forgiven.”

Rating: 4 E


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #25
Poena 5X1, or How I Came to Agree with Right-Wing Thinking
Abbie Spallen

A woman dressed smartly in expensive business attire begins to provide what appears at first to be a lecture behind a high-styled lectern.  Her subject is discussion of her ten years research for a government agency, hunting for a “pharmaceutical for humane punishment” specifically geared to reduce prison over-crowding.  Cathy Conneff presents the world premiere (commissioned by Inside Intelligence Theatre and written by Abbie Spallen) of Poena 5X1, or How I Came to Agree with Right-Wing Thinking in what at first begins in a formal manner with some conversational undertones, as if she is talking to a group of known colleagues.  As the intensity of her message continues, who we are as audience becomes cloudier until an ending where our roles are starkly clear.

Poena 5X1 is political, sexual, and highly personal all at the same time.  What is an ethical dilemma and how is one to react to such when faced with choices is the underlying theme of the speaker and her monologue.  This is a scientist who sees herself as once liberal and whose personal mission it once was to create “a drug to boil the mind” but an experience that would not be remembered.

In a pace calculated, full of nervously smiled pauses, and dripping with tension, Ms. Conneff presents her case, including how a governmental minister above her wants to alter her discovery of a humane punishment in order to increase the profits potential in a global market.  (After all, the U.S. would never go for a punishment that the criminal did not remember.)  What happens when Ms. Conneff finds herself in bed in a mutually agreed afternoon tryst is when this liberal takes on some conservative mannerisms of getting even.

While Ms. Conneff is electric in her presentation, the piece itself does not do enough to engender the kind of conversation and questions that a new work dealing with such subjects as government-sponsored research of punishment drugs should.  In the end, there is much potential for Poena 5X1, or How I Came to Agree with Right-Wing Thinking, but the piece feels under-developed and still needing work at this point.

Rating: 2 E


2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #26
Andy Platt
Penistone Community Arts of Penistone, South Yorkshire

It is 1682 in Thurlstone, Yorkshire.  The ‘Act of Toleration’ now grants the right to worship to non-conformists; but the sour-faced, holier-than-thou Reverend Fox will have none of that and is leading his congregation in a rousing anthem of “Blind Faith” where he declares in stern, strong voice, “My salvation depends on getting them to bend to God’s will.”  Against this pressure to conform to strict Puritanism, a blind boy with an astoundingly quick mind named Nicholas -- whose father is strictly non-believing -- desperately wants to do more than sitting all day carding wool and instead wants to go to the church school.  Even though the unbending Reverend does all he can to block his way, Nicholas rings forth in hopeful voice, “What if there is no horizon?  What if there lies for me some higher dignity?”

The story of Nicholas Saunderson is a long forgotten one of a blind boy in Yorkshire who dared to challenge others to see that not having sight does not mean not having great intelligence and the ability to be a major player in the mathematical and scientific worlds of the late seventeenth century.  Andy Platt has taken this little-known bit of history and turned it into a world premiere musical, No Horizon, launching it at the 2016 Fringe Festival and aspiring to ensure all of Great Britain soon comes to know and honor this daring boy as a national hero. 

As Nicholas, Samuel Reid is totally convincing as a young man who has no sight, always looking in blank stares just past whoever is talking to him while also having a face that communicates volumes in overall expression.  Convincing also is his clear voice that sings with an energy, determination, and optimism that is totally contagious as he does when he urges his friends to “Read Me Books” and “just fill me up.”  As one of those friends, Nathaniel Laydon is Joshua Dunn (in understudy performance for the regular George Griffiths); and Mr. Laydon is wonderful as the loyal, fearless pal who brings Nicholas to Cambridge, ostensibly as his tutor but secretly to get him in front of professors like the honored Sir Isaac Newton (Ken Taylor).  There Joshua leads fellow students in a rousing, full-voiced, and fun-filled “Magical, Mathematical Man” in honor of his friend, Nicholas. 

But his other advocate at home is more than just a friend.  Abigail, the daughter of the scornful Reverend Fox, sees not only a great mind in the making but also a boy that is clearly winning her heart, going against everything her father has in mind for her.  With a voice light and fresh as that of a lark, Clare Wakley (in this performance as an understudy for Samantha Griffiths) sings in beautiful duet with Nicholas, “What is this feeling? ... Something so right cannot be wrong.”

While not all the voices in solo are quite as sure and solid as these three leads, together as an ensemble the blend is strong, harmonious, and uplifting.  Particularly well-sung and choreographed are the academically robed students of Cambridge as they sing the funny “Must Be Thick” as they convince Nicholas to tutor all of them.  Later, they join Nicolas in a revival-sounding “Lesson One” where they learn from Nicholas, “Learning’s where you show your passion.”

The story, already naturally laden with much emotion, does go somewhat overboard in too much melodrama in a few spots.  (One death scene has tears and sobs that go on seemingly forever.)  The musical’s songs themselves, while singularly uplifting and noble, after a while often begin to sound similar.  But this is a world premiere; and the seed germinated can still be sowed, trimmed, and shaped into a truly worthy finale product.

With a story intriguing and inspiring, a large cast of enthusiastic actors young and old, and a director (Louise Denison) who clearly knows how to tell a good tale, No Horizon (with a few adjustments) should have no soon sunset but rise to see many future performances on other stages – both in Great Britain and beyond.  

Rating: 4 E

2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show #27
The Glass Menagerie
Tennessee Williams
American Repertory Theater as Part of the EdinburghInternational Festival
King Theatre

“You are the only young man that I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don't plan for it!”

So warns a mother to her son in one of the most famous lines of Tennessee William’s early, some-say autobiographical play, The Glass Menagerie.  But this mother of course ignores the fact that she cannot let go of her own colonial southern past, has ensured her daughter is helpless and has no future except at home with her, and is about to drive away her son who is restless and determined his will not be a future stuck in the past with them.  American Repertory Theater reprises its much-lauded 2015 Broadway production of this American classic for the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival with daringly imaginative direction, an arrestingly stellar cast, and stunningly beautiful set and lighting.

Currently one of the hottest, most-sought-after directors on the globe (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Black Watch, Once), John Tiffany has painted Williams’ memory play on a canvas that blurs and blends, reflects and mirrors, shines and shadows the remembrances, hopes, and regrets of this three-person family.  The words of Williams’ script are often given pause in pronouncement as actors choreograph in slow-motion silence memories like that of setting a family table or of looking in hope and wonder at a rising moon – all in movements designed by Steven Hoggett.  With the lighting mastery of Natasha Katz, the stage’s flat-floor canvas is dotted with sparkling stars that twinkle among the dream-like reflections of the family members and their home  -- all on the dark, glass-light stage surrounding the two hexagon raised platform rooms of Bob Crowley’s stage.  A precariously flimsy and ever-diminishing fire escape climbs somewhere high into the heavens, symbolizing so starkly how near impossible it is for mother, daughter, or even wanderlust son to leave this too-close abode.  Apart from the powerful performances of this dream cast, the meanings and messages of Tennessee Williams’ play of memories are fully laid before us by this incredible production team.  (One note: The one flaw in this flawless design is that those sitting in the orchestra/stall section miss much of the reflective beauty and thus messages that those higher up see on the mirrored stage floor.)

As five-time Tony nominee and two-time Best Actress winner, Cherry Jones certainly has the all acting prowess and credentials for an iconic part like Amanda, the domineering mother who repeatedly purports only to care for the welfare of her two children but who clearly is always at the center of her own universe.  But Ms. Jones -- having grown up in the small town of Paris, Tennessee -- also has a natural affinity for the drawl and the disposition of this aging woman who remembers as if yesterday when she herself was the gowned and gorgeous southern belle being courted by all her “seventeen gentleman callers.”  In a voice and manner that elongates words to their fullest, often sweeping singular ones through hills and valleys of sound, Amanda continually creates a world that exists in her dreams only – a world where gentleman callers regularly come to call on her limping, severely shy daughter and a world where her restless son leaves behind his penchant for movie houses and drinking and instead insures her and his sister’s futures are secure.  With theatrical sweeps of her long arms and dramatic moves of her tall, slender body, this Amanda commands full attention both by her own design as the main star of her life and by the skills of the performer herself.

Ms. Jones is supported by cast members who all bring note-worthy performances.  As Tom, Michael Esper is the story’s reflective, poetic narrator on the fire escape’s landing who becomes an over-grown boy once inside the family flat, often plopping on floor or couch in a crumpled heap as if a teenager rather than a young man long past adolescence.  His sometime fury at his mother (“You ugly, babbling old witch”) is jarring and visceral while his deeply felt combination of love, sympathy, and pity for his sister, Laura, is evidently genuine. 

As Laura, Kate O’Flynn is as delicate looking and vulnerable to breakage as the tiny glass animals she so dotes on.  Her stares into space are often fixated on something no one else sees.  The fear she has of moving anywhere beyond the confines of these few rooms is seen in her paralytic-looking hands with fingers frozen in fear of taking any action beyond tending her menagerie or putting on yet another old record on the Victor Victrola. 

But when a gentleman caller does appear for dinner (at the invitation of Tom to a high school friend and co-worker from his warehouse job), Laura has a few precious minutes when she is able to share who she really is with an understanding guy who once called her by the nickname “Blue Roses” (because she one had pleurisies while in school) and whom she secretly has loved ever since.  Seth Numrich is Mr. O’Connor, the jovial, truly good-guy-next-door type who is eagerly chats with Laura, is willing to listen to her without judgment of her limp or her shyness, and is a way for her to live for a few minutes a lifetime of dreams and hopes, capped by maybe one of the sweetest kisses ever staged.  That those few seconds of Laura’s bliss are soon quickly shattered by the revelation of a harsh reality is of course the only possible outcome, but the embarrassment and hurt of Laura and the genuine regret by Mr. O’Connor of unknowingly leading her own are both gripping to behold.

The names of Tennessee Williams, John Tiffany, and/or Cherry Jones may have drawn most of the standing-room only audience to the grand King Theatre of Edinburgh for this moving and magical The Glass Menagerie; but once there, how clear it becomes that everyone involved on and off stage of this production is a star extraordinaire.

Rating: 5 E

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