Saturday, August 31, 2019

"The 39 Steps"


The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
Based on the Novel by John Buchan
From the Movie by Alfred Hitchcock

Lance Gardner, Ron Campbell, Annie Abrams & Cassidy Brown
Four actors playing upwards of one-hundred-plus parts.  Eighty costume changes, with a total of fifty different costumes often switched in split-second timing on stage.  Bridges, moving train cars, and fences/walls made out of a ladder while storage trunks become train cars, automobiles, rocks, and more.  Sound effects like wind, phone rings, and police sirens created from a table on the side while suddenly appearing racks of clothes become a group of police on a raid or a line of glitzy dancing girls.  

Put all this into the hands of Director Leslie Martinson and her fantastically talented creative team assembled for the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s revival of its rib-tickling 2011 production of The 39 Steps, the descriptors in the above paragraph are only a miniscule teaser of the seemingly hundreds of wild and crazy things occurring on its 2019 staging as a talented cast of four once again re-enact the Hitchcock classic and the Barlow adaptation with full fun and flair.

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj173.html.

Rating: 4.5 E

The 39 Steps continues through September 15, 2019 by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org/box-office/ or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, Noon – 6 p.m.

Photo Credit: Kevin Berne
 

Friday, August 30, 2019

TheatreEddys Goes to the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Mini-Reviews of 42 Shows Seen


TheatreEddys Goes to the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival:
Mini-Reviews of 42 Shows Seen

There is nothing in the world like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with the 39th edition having completed its twenty-four days of several thousand offerings each day at 554 venues (each with one to a dozen or more stages) where over 55,000 performers from all over the world performed stand-up comedy, plays, musicals, operas, musical performances of all types, dance, circus, cabaret, spoken word, magic, and more.  With over 1200 plays and about 130 musicals/operas from which to choose, TheatreEddys selected 42 offerings after two weeks of perusing the 400+ pages of the catalogue that arrived in the mail in late June.  Our shows varied in length from one hour to two-and-half hours.  As in my past four trips to the Fringe, this fifth time astounded me as to the overall quality and variety.

The following are brief takes on the shows we saw, arranged by how we rated them.  We start with what my hubby and I selected this year as “Best of TheatreEddys’ 2019 Fringe” and then cover the remaining shows, many of whom still rated a top award of “5 E’s.”

TheatreEddys’ Best Five of the Fringe for 2019
(Listed in Alphabetical Order)

Bobby and Amy
Emily Jenkins, Playwright
Emma Blackman Productions
Pleasance Courtyard
Will Howard & Kimberly Jarvis

Two thirteen-year-olds –  both outcasts bullied by classmates (known to them as “the goats”) – find each other in the loft of a barn and in finding each other, discover over time that each is in fact not weird but very special.  A calf’s miraculous birth changes their lives as does a regional attack of foot-and-mouth disease on all cattle.  Besides playing Amy and Bobby respectively, Kimberly Jarvis and Will Howard become in instantaneous transformations numerous other characters from the kids’ cruel bullies to their both caring and callous parents to the town’s quirkiest and noblest inhabitants.  Personalities, voices, stances, and moods shift in a split second time and again.  Bobby and Amy is a tour de force performance for each actor and an unforgettable hour that packs in its sixty minutes a story that will live on in the audience’s memories well past their 2019 Fringe experiences.
Rating: 5 E
Photo Credit: Cam Harle

Burgerz
Travis Alabanza, Writer and Performer
Hackney Showroom, Producer
Traverse Theatre Company

Travis Alabanza
Travis is obsessed with burgers, determined in the pristine kitchen before us to create the perfect specimen – one as prescribed in the over-sized, orange cookbook from which Tom reads (a cis, white man Travis selects from the audience as his on-stage assistant and confidant).  Travis is also obsessive about finding exactly the right box to hold his soon-to-be-created burger, quizzing Tom along the way if he has ever felt boxed in, when was the last time he cried, and just how nervous is he at this very moment and why. 

As meat is ground and onions sliced, Travis – now in a dress and high heels to complement his ruby red lips and brightly bowed hair – open up step-by-step to Tom about his life as a transgender and how it is living as a plural person whose gender is always ‘both’ and never ‘either/or.’  While humor and laughs intersperse their conversation, Travis’ story is in the end not at all funny but in fact, horrific in what he has had to endure and still endures today on a daily basis.  As shocking as his stories are where verbal and physical abuses in public are time and again ignored by passers-by, we all begin to understand the real tragedy is that Travis as an actor must continue to bring his story to audiences like us because the general public does not yet realize the boxes that we place others like Travis on a daily basis and in doing so, ignore their humanity.
Rating: 5 E
Photo Credit: Holly Revell


The HandleBards: Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare, Playwright
The HandleBards, Producer
Assembly George Square Gardens

Traveling already nearly 1400 miles this year on bicycle to perform in towns across the U.K., four guys arrive at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe hauling their props and costumes behind them to perform William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  Their imaginative, zany, and absolutely hysterical rendering celebrates the Bard’s work by their rendering his words in gloriously raucous iambic-pentameter style.  At the same time, the quartet offers their own ad libs here and there that always seem in full keeping with this comedy about love sought; love not wanted; and love found, lost, and found again.

Interchanging roles in split-second alacrity by using a thousand (or so it seems) clever ways to draw laughs while still telling the story in methods so clear even a first-timer never gets lost, these four master actors, acrobats, and clowns make so much out of nothing that something magical and memorable happens every minute along the way.

(By the way, there is a female foursome HandleBards troupe who are making their rounds this summer through the U.K. countryside with their version of The Tempest.  They too were at the Fringe but unfortunately had left before we arrived.)
Rating: 5 E

In Loyal Company
David William Bryan, Writer, Performer & Producer
Pleasance Dome

David William Bryan
Master storyteller David William Bryan brings to gripping reality the true life, World War II story of his great-uncle, Arthur Robinson, an English teenager who too soon became in the early ‘40s a hero, a prisoner, and a victim of that great war.  As seventeen-year-old Arthur, the writer/actor becomes his uncle as young Arthur tells us about his life in 1941 Livermore, introducing us to all his large and loving family, to his best mate, and to the girl he loves but cannot gain enough courage to tell her so.  But as the Nazis rain their bombs night after night over Livermore claiming the life of his best pal, Arthur gains the courage to enlist in to His Majesty’s armed forces; and we follow him around the world to fight the Japanese in hot, disease-filled jungles. 

The writer/performer brings a stunning ability to describe in full vividness scenes of family gatherings, partings, and post-war reunions; of horrific nights in underground bomb shelters; of a ship’s sinking as it is blasted from planes above; and of grueling, horrendous years in a prisoner-of-war camp.  Accompanied by impressive, imaginative sound and lighting design, Mr. Bryan brings a physicality to his performance that is breath-taking as he is tossed on the open sea, as he falls on the war field, as he treads barely alive through jungles, and as he suffers from acquired TB.  Even more memorable, are the characters he brings to full life – his parents, his best buddy on the battlefield, his vicious captors.  In the end, David William Bryan tells just one of a million likened stories from those war years but one that is singularly a lasting, loving tribute to his great-uncle.
Rating: 5 E

Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch
Tim Gilvin (Music); Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx (Book and Lyrics)
Fat Rascal Theater, Producer
Underbelly Bristol Square

Robyn Grant & Cast Members
Watch out, Disney!  Ursula is back, and she is ready to reveal just how sexist, racist, and homophobic your view of the underwater kingdom of your Little Mermaid actually is.  Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch is Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx’s laugh-a-minute retake of Ariel’s wish to have legs and to love a prince on land.  Robyn Grant plays the larger-than-life Ursula with her mighty tentacles swinging furiously and proudly, bringing an even mightier voice to the music composed by Tim Gilvin.  Disney concepts of what is beautiful and what is not as well as who is good and who is not are ripped apart by this exceptional cast of five, most of them playing both primary and secondary parts.  Puppets by Abby Clarke play a big part in the fun with the entire production being first-rate in every conceivable respect.
Rating: 5 E
Photo Credit: Matt Carey

Other Outstanding “5 E” Productions Attended and Reviewed
(Listed in Alphabetical Order)

Apphia Campbell
Black Is the Color of My Voice
Apphia Campbell, Writer and Performer
James Seabright and Play the Spotlight, Producers
Gilded Balloon Teviot

No less than electrifying is the performance of the show’s creator, Apphia Campbell, as she holds court as Nina Simone in Black Is the Color of My Voice.  Every moment of revealed memories are performed with stunning intensity as her Nina shuts herself for three days in a room to seek forgiveness of a dead father she abandoned in his final days on earth.  Sprinkling her arresting story with a rich array of the songs that defined Ms. Simone’s life – gospel, blues, jazz, nightclub hits – Apphia Campbell’s voice and persona as the famed singer grabs and grips the listeners who sit in stunned awe and admiration.
Rating: 5 E

BUZZ
Johan Harsted (Book); Antoon Offeciers & Karen Willems (Music); Ann-Julie Vervaeke (Film)
KOPERGIETERY, KBbe, Arsenaal/Lazarus, Richard Jordan Productions. Theatre Royal Plymouth, Big In Begium, Producers
Summerhill

Charlotte Vandermeersch
Mattias is OK being Number Two, being always in the background, and being seen as unremarkable and easily forgettable by others.  As he tells us, he really only wants to be in the audience of life and never on the stage.  After all, his life-long hero is Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon who never is quoted and who hardly anyone now remembers.

Mattias, happy as a gardener, suddenly finds himself washed up on the beach of the Faroe Islands, distraught after losing girlfriend of twelve years who got tired of his lack of ambition.  Settling into a new job in a factory making souvenir sheep as part of his rehabilitation at a half-way house for psychiatric patients, Mattias must decide whether to get out of bed and move on with life or just give up for good.

Charlotte Vandermeersch is movingly superb in a gender-bending performance as Mattias, supported all along the way by multi-instrumentalist Karen Williams and by a creative absorbing background video by film-maker Ann-Julie Vervaeke.  The total result is an engagingly beautiful, thought-provoking story that leaves the audience both drained and inspired emotionally.
Rating: 5 E
Photo Credit: Phile Deprez

DARK PLAY, or stories for boys
Carlos Murillo, Playwright
NEONBOX Theatre Company, Producer
The Space on the Mile

Nick is a fourteen-year-old living life as an outsider, even in his own house where his room and his computer are his entire world.  On the worldwide net, he begins to play DARK PLAY, creating other persona who quickly become very real to unsuspecting men on the other side of the chats – people like Adam.  Nick sees in Adam’s online profile six words that are an invitation to being with will be a game like neither has ever played before:  “I want to fall in love.”  The game they begin – with Adam’s having no idea this is a game and not reality – brings consequences that will prove darker than even Nick could ever imagine as exchanges occur with increased frequency and intensity between Adam and a girl Nick has created and becomes online. Emotions rise and stakes skyrocket.

An important 2007 play based on its original novel, DARK PLAY, or stories for boys raises issues about online prowling and alternative personality creations that every teen and parent needs to understand.  This cast of five is frightfully real and believable, with especially the role of Nick a boy who could easily be the teen son of any audience parent watching.
Rating: 5 E

Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster
Conrad Murray & David Cumming, Co-Directors
Battersea Arts Centre and BAC Beatbox Academy, Creators, Performers, and Producers
Traverse Theatre Company

Cast Members
Mary Shelley’s century-old classic, Frankenstein, resurrects to become a modern-age, extremely relevant story as the BAX Beatbox Academy tackles themes of today’s teenager’s urban isolation, rampant stereotyping, and social-media infatuation while also retelling Shelley’s story of a genius whose powers of creation go berserk.  With all the sound effects, music, and instrumentals performed live and only via the incredibly mind-blowing beatboxing of the six, young musicians/actors, members of the Academy perform the work they helped create.

Sounds of nature and city swirl and then explode into the heavy booms and beats of a story about a monster’s conception, creation, life, and ultimate destruction.  Voices that sound forth in countless manners also sing softly in beautiful harmonies.  Bodies used as instruments also move in choreography that itself relates the story with vivid fervor.  The mash-up, spontaneous quality of the show conceals what must be thousands of well-planned, much-rehearsed bits and pieces that together produce a modern symphony that must be seen and heard to be believed.
Rating: 5 E
Photo Credit: Lara Cappelli

Henry Box Brown
Mehr Mansuri, Book and Music; Ben Harney, Director
CTC New York Ensemble
Gilded Balloon Patter House

The Cast of Henry Box Brown
A sixteen-member, New York cast brings the gospel-and-R&B-infused Henry Box Brown to the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe after an award-winning premiere run in the Big Apple.  While only an hour in length, the musical is epic in nature as the inspiring, true-life tale of Henry Box Brown unfolds, starting when the boy was born into 1830s slavery in Virginia and ending with a miraculous escape to freedom in Philadelphia as a man is shipped as boxed cargo in the early 1850s. 

The strong will, resolve, faith, and love teeming among the Virginia slaves contrasts with the overall hateful, heartless owners who control their lives.  However, even among a majority of perpetrators of a nation’s greatest historical evil emerges a few who stand up to help save lives and win freedom for their fellow human beings.  But it is Henry’s bravery and his later memoir that will inspire future generations, even until this day; and it is his determined courage that is the center of this magnificent musical.  Told by a cast with voices that rise individually heavenward and collectively shake that very foundation of the small arena, Henry Box Brown is a new musical crying out to be expanded into a fuller version for stages all across the globe.
Rating: 5 E

How Not to Drown
Nicola McCartney and Dritan Kastrati, Writers
Thick Skin Productions, Producer
Traverse Theatre Company

The Cast
A father worried his eleven-year-old son will never survive the family’s war-ravaged, gun-and-gang-filled homeland sends the boy on a harrowing refugee journey to join the boy’s older brother in England.  The young asylum-seeker’s incredible story bursts to life on a slanted, wooden, and rotating stage as five actors each assume in random succession the role of the boy.  That boy, Dritan Kastrati – now a grown man – is one of the five and our overall narrator.

As directed and choreographed by Neil Bettles (and co-choreographed by Jonnie Riordan) and with the aid of two, metal fences, scenes play out from a boy’s summer swimming hole to his crowded nightmare in dark lorries and drenching, retching boats.  But after finally landing safely in England, Dritan’s journey only becomes more difficult as he live through years of social workers, foster parents, and bullies galore.  Those harsh mileposts in his incredible journey help him decide in the end what and where home for him ultimately must be.
Rating: 5 E
Photo Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Islander: A New Musical
Finn Anderson (Music & Lyrics); Stewart Melton (Book)
Helen Milne, Producer
Roundabout @ Summerhill

Kirsty Findley & Bethany Tennick
A young girl gazes at the shoreline into a sea that she hopes holds her dream for a future somewhere other than her small, lonely island.  What she finds is an unexpected visitor like none she has ever met, and immediately her life clearly is never to be the same.  Two actors – Bethany Tennick and Kirsty Findlay – weave an epic story using original music that has deep roots in Scottish folk, employing onstage technology to live-record and layer their voices and to create incredibly effective sound effects.  Each brings a voice lyrical, pitch-perfect, and amazingly versatile in range and style.  Their story mixes reality and myth so masterfully and beautifully that we as audience never fail to believe each fantastical moment.  In every respect, Islander: A New Musical deserves to have legs beyond the 2019 Fringe and to float its magical music and story around the globe.
Rating: 5 E
Photo Credit: Jazzy Earl

LIMBO:  City of Dreams
Finn Anderson, Writer
Royal Conservatorie of Scotland and American Theatre Project, Producers
Gilded Balloon Patter House

Cast Members
Enter a world in the future where everyone, young and old, is taught not to have a creative thought, not to write an original song or poem, and not ever to ask ‘why’ or ‘what if.’  One girl defies the system, a girl born to lead a group of underground dreamers to restore hope and wonder into a dulled world.  Thrilling music, a beautiful and inspiring story, and an accomplished cast of young actors leave lasting impressions; but it is especially the powerhouse of an actress, Kate Lynch, who particularly shines as Imogen, a force who changes the unchangeable world around her.
Rating: 5 E
Photo Credit: 

Musical of Musicals
Eric Rockwell (Music); Joanne Bogart (Lyrics); Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart (Book)
Musicality of Chicago, Producer
Paradise in the Vault

Five, fifteen-minute segments of the same melodramatic story (i.e., ingénue and heroine without rent money, villainous and lecherous landlord, shy and hunky hero) are told and sung in parody style of five, famous, musical composers: Rogers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, Herman, Webber, Kander & Ebb.  A cast of four outstanding voices and abilities to act in serious corn make this a winner at the 2019 Fringe.  Minimal set, excellent keyboardist, and inspired direction all work together highlight the individual and combined talents of this fine cast.
Rating: 5 E

Puppet King Richard II
William Shakespeare
Pocket Epics, Producer
PQA Venues@ Riddles Court

Gregory Grudgeon
Shakespeare’s Richard II has surely never quite seen the treatment it receives in the puppet-commanding hands of Royal Shakespeare Company actor Gregory Grudgeon and his musical accompanist and fellow actor, Lucas Augustus.  The Bard’s characters take the shape of stick puppets, puppets made of gloves, and full-size puppets of papier-mâché.  In a venue so tiny it barely fits twenty people, the full play transpires in its glorious iambic pentameter in dramatic effects surprising and impressive.  Anger-filled challenges, sword-filled battles, and beheadings all take place among silly, little forms who realistically enact the likes of Richard, Henry, and all the others populating one of Shakespeare’s best.  A tour de force is made even better by a generous smattering of ad-lib between the two principals as they sometimes venture from Shakespeare’s verse in ways delightful and laughter-producing.
Rating: 5 E
Photo Credit: Kaja Curtis

Until the Flood
Dael Orlandersmith, Creator and Performer
Arcola Theatre Production Company
 Traverse Theatre Company

Dael Orlandersmith
Based on her extensive interviews with Missouri residents after the 2014 shooting of African American teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson, Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith gives voice and persona to both blacks and whites as they share with her and with us their reactions in the aftermath.  We meet people like a late seventy-year-old African American woman who has spent a life time fighting for equal rights.  We hear from a young, African American teenage boy who has grown up in the same project complex as did Michael and who fears he may not survive one more year to go back East to a top-rated, Ivy-League university.  A white woman who is on the fence for whom she has the most sympathy – the family of Michael or the family of Wilson – and a white, retired cop who longs for the days Ferguson was all white like him are just two more of the several powerful personifications the actor/creator becomes.  Standing in front of a re-created sidewalk memorial of flowers, candles, pictures, messages, and teddy bears and supported by actual videos and pictures, Dael Orlandersmith leaves her audience in total silence as we exit, stunned again by the horrific event and by the realization how little has changed for the better since this 2014 tragedy.
Rating: 5 E
Photo Credit: Alex Brenn

Vulvarine: A New Musical
Robyn Grant (Book); Robyn Grant & Daniel Foxx (Lyrics); James Ringer-Beck (Music)
Fat Rascal Theatre
Gilded Balloon Patter House

The Cast
The creators and cast of another 2019 Fringe favorite, Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch (and reviewed above as one of TheatreEddys’ “Best Five of the Fringe) team up for a second show that seems also to have found its own packed-house following as well.  Like its sister show, Vulvarine: A New Musical decries with bawdy wit and four-letter-filled frivolity the sexist, everyday world that the modern woman must endure – from her home to the office and everywhere in between. 

Songs with lyrics clever and cute but brutal and biting when needed help tell the story of a young woman that the world largely overlooks, Bryony Buckle.  Wonderfully portrayed by Allie Munro, Bryony through an evil doctor and the fate of lightning transforms into superhero Vulvarine and into a destiny to save womanhood from its planned extinction under the plan of evil-eyed, evil-minded Mansplainer (devilishly and deliciously played by the show’s co-creator, Robyn Grant).  As in Unfortunate, the entire cast is contagiously wonderful in song, comic action, and physical acrobatics.  While the set and staging appear at first minimal and simplistic, surprises abound to make the small-looking show a big-stage winner.
Rating: 5 E

Really Great Productions Attended & Rated “4.5 E”
(Listed in Alphabetical Order)

American Idiot
Green Day, Music & Lyrics
Edinburgh Little Theatre, Producer
Hill Street Theatre

Three teen boys set out to rebel against American norms, employing the music of punk rock band Green Day to tell their separate yet intertwined stories of pushing boundaries to often dangerous limits.  Journeys sung are conveyed also with incredible physicality.  Voices blast with mind-blowing power and whisper with emotional resonance.  A Greek-like chorus – all draped in black from head to toe – performs musically and with choreography in ways both rich and raw in meaning.  Set in a small venue, this American Idiot takes on new meaning for a show that usually plays on the big stages of New York, London, and beyond.
Rating: 4.5 E

Drowsy Chaperone
Bob Martin & Don McKellar (Book); Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison (Music & Lyrics)
Kingdom Theatre Company, Producer
Greenside @ Nicolson Square

Fife, Scotland’s Kingdom Theatre Company returns to the 2019 Edinburg Fringe with a cast of twenty-one and a full band to present a rousing, joyful, big-smile-producing tribute to the early days of the Great American Musical.  Drowsy Chaperone, which debuted on Broadway in 2006 to win five Tonys, takes place in the apartment of a middle-aged man whose best friends are his vintage records of old musicals. 

Providing us informed history, juicy gossip, and wry commentary, The Man in the Chair (played delightfully by Derek Ward) puts on a recording of a fictional, 1928 musical hit, Drowsy Chaperone, which then comes to full life all around him.  The story is corny and predictable, but the songs – whose styles range from the 1920s to the 1940s – are hummable, toe-tapping, and usually hilarious. 

Hats off to a cast members complete with the required quirky, stock characters as they sing with zeal and dance with all the kicks, swings, and taps one would expect from that era.  The evening is nothing short of a spirit-soaring success and a genuine tribute to musicals and musical lovers in general.
Rating: 4.5 E

Heroin(e) for Breakfast
Philip Stokes, Writer & Director
King Brilliant Theatre & Richard Jordan Productions, Producers
Pleasance Dome

Three flat-mates share an apartment where Tommy is in cocky control, so sure of his rebellious superiority at the age of thirty-five but acting as if he is barely twenty-one.  Living with him are his eighteen-year-old girlfriend and college student, Edie – blonde and cute in a too-sweet and innocent way – and Chloe, a somewhat sullen but equally beautiful twenty-something who currently earns her rent money through trading her body at night.

Tension is high between Edie and Chloe, and the air is thick in the apartment as intentional insults fly about amidst the ongoing bragging and egging on by Tommy.  Into the scene dramatically enters a visitor, one highly anticipated with both excitement and some dread.  Her daily visits become increasingly nightmares that none of the three is able to escape.

This revival of Philip Stokes’ 2005 Fringe winner is even more gripping, hard-hitting, and heart-pounding in 2019 with its messages about the lures, imprisonment, and ultimate destruction of drug addictions.  A cast of five could hardly be better under the no-holes-barred direction of the writer himself.  The visitor and her aftermath leave scenes seared into our memories of just what disastrous effects drug addictions – like the current ones ravaging all over the world – inevitably have.
Rating: 4.5 E

I Wish My Life Were a Musical
Alexander S. Bermange (Music, Lyrics, Director, Pianist, Producer)
Underbelly Bristo Square

What does it mean to wait three hours in a long queue for a first audition for a musical?  How does one feel as an actor when audience members arrive late and noisily?  What is it like to be an understudy (again), to forget your words mid-song (again), or to end your night with a body racking in pain from head to toe (again)?  These and many other aspects of being an actor in musicals are revealed through punchy and clever lyrics, laugh-out-loud humor, and tunes that sound nothing short of Broadway in a new, award-winning musical from London, I Wish My Life Were a Musical.

A cast of four one-by-one rings forth in fine voice and with humorous mannerism, pulling back the stage’s curtain to provide us the real scoop about life on the musical stage, from the perspectives of novices and acclaimed stars alike.  For any lover of musical theatre, this is a must-see show and one that hopefully has a long life on stages far and wide.
Rating: 4.5 E

The Letter
Paolo Nani & Nullo Facshini, Creators
Paolo Nani Teater
Pleasance Dome

To add to his 1500+ performances in at least 35 countries since the show’s 1992 premiere, world-renowned and much-awarded clown Paolo Nani brings The Letter to the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe.  In one hour, fifteen similar scenes are repeated, only each is hilariously enacted via a different theme.  With only a pen and a sheet of paper, a bottle of red wine, and a letter to be written and mailed to a woman he no longer loves, Paolo Nani over and again sends his audience into howls of laughter as he follows an unseen stage manager’s billboard instructions – commands like “lazy,” “drunk,” “horror,” and “no arms.”  Few recognizable sounds ever leave his mouth; but even so, the master performer finds myriads of other ways to use his entire being to thrill and delight kids to adults alike.
Rating: 4.5 E

Sinatra Raw
Richard Shelton, Creator & Performer
James Seabright, Producer
Gilded Balloon at the Museum

Blink your eyes, and you will swear ol’ Blue Eyes himself stands and sings before us.  Richard Shelton has won accord and acclaim from like of royalty, Sir Elton John, and West End audiences as one of the world’s best-ever Frank Sinatra interpreters.  In his Sinatra Raw, his Frank is giving his farewell performance at the Purple Room of Frank’s beloved Palm Springs.  With the help of a bottle of Jack Daniels, Frank shares a lifetime of stories, gossip, and untold secrets while also crooning in true Sinatra fashion of voice and gestures the great man’s greatest hits.  As audience, we leave with no doubt that we have been in the presence of the real thing and true legend – both Frank and Richard.
Rating: 4.5 E

Wonderful Productions Attended & Rated “4 E”
(Listed in Alphabetical Order)

Beat
Cédric Chapuis, Creator
SIT Productions, Ki M’aime Suive and Scénes Plurielles, Producers
Pleasance Dome

A thirteen-year-old, autistic boy who has trouble relating to peers, parents, or the pressures of school finds his solace in the sounds his mother makes in cutting up a salad, especially when combined with a pounding noise he hears coming from outside her kitchen.  Those beat fill him with a drive to create his own world of drumming in any way he can – on the top of his desk, on his mother’s up-turned laundry cans, on his own knees and chest.  His dream, a set of drums, is a dream his dad has no desire to fulfill.  But Alfie is persistent; he receives an old set; and we watch him become a master musician with a zeal for life where his set of drums is the only friend he really needs or wants.

However, the world around him somehow does not always hear the music in the way he hears it; and the score he plays takes on a dangerous air he does not mean to compose.  Beat is not only storytelling at its best, it is also an education about drumming and a live concert by a superior young musician, also sensitive and delightful actor, Daniel Bellus.
Rating: 4 E

Blighty, Broadway & Beyond!  The Private Lives of Noel Coward & Gertrude Lawrence
Gin Palace Productions
Greenside at Infirmary Street

From somewhere in Purgatory, best friends and sometimes fellow actors, Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, meet in the hereafter for an hour of memories told through anecdotes and songs the two each made famous.  Alasdair Carson-Sheard and Samantha Nixon bring all the wit, English mannerisms, and signature talents of the two icons of English and American theatre.  Their laugh-out-loud give-and-take leaves the audience as putty in their hands; but it is actually the audience that in the end controls the eternal fates of these two once we have learned all about their loves, their laughs, and their lives.
Rating: 4 E

Cathy: A Retelling of Wuthering Heights
Michael Bascom (Music & Lyrics); Michael Bascom (Book, adapted from Emily Brontë)
Brickhouse Theatre Company
The Space on the Mile

The complexities and many twists and turns of the classic novel Wuthering Heights is captured in a mere one hour, fifteen minutes in a beguiling, period-sounding musical and by a cast of five excellent actors, all dressed in white.  With only three wooden box seats as props and accompanied by one outstanding keyboardist (creator Michael Bascom), the story of Heathcliff unfolds before us, but this time as told with a focus more on his would-be love, Cathy.

The tragic tale of two lovers who cannot find a way in this mortal world to be a wedded couple is told at a pace never rushed and with enough detail for a first timer to comprehend fully Emily Brontë’s original tale.  As Cathy, Emma Torrens particularly shines with an angelic voice whose lyrical tones are haunting in the increasing sadness of her plight in life.  As Heathcliff, Samuel Terry is dramatically compelling in all aspects except in his singing voice, which does not meet the same high level of quality of his fellow actors.  However, the overall result of the new musical is commendable and enjoyable.
Rating: 4 E

Einstein
Pip Ulton, Creator and Performer
Pleasance Courtyard

Returning for his twenty-sixth Fringe season, Pip Ulton premieres his latest one-man show where a legend comes to full life for an intimate, get-to-know sharing of his life, his loves, his beliefs, and of course – in Albert Einstein’s case – his world-changing theories.  Pip Ulton’s Albert is easily approachable, thoroughly charming, and singularly unique.  Eyes twinkle as he explains the essence of his complicated premises in words we all can understand.  We laugh; we imagine (with eyes closed as instructed); and we learn that even a genius – maybe the greatest genius ever – is just a man, a person, like all the rest of us.
Rating: 4 E

Fragility of Man
David William Bryan, Creator and Performer
Pleasance Courtyard

Sweat-producing for both actor and audience, David William Bryan’s Fragility of Man is a harrowing narrative of one man’s life of battles against increasingly insurmountable odds that never seem to tip in his favor.  Inherited rage tendencies coupled with a fist that is full of its own lethal power sends a boy in 1981 to Prime Minister Thatcher’s brand of reformation – an experiment that more often than not produced exiting young men bound for self-destruction.  In this case, the downward plunge comes via ecstasy-inflamed, all-night raves and too-easy cash earned through selling the pills to others.

David William Bryan’s exacting, alliterative-packed delivery of this man’s story is matched by a physicality of performance that screams with incredible intensity.  A journey that finally begins to steer toward some hope fueled by the inspiration of an unexpected son named Michael suddenly becomes once again upended when the past of this man’s twelve-year-old self emerges like an unwelcomed ghost. 

This is a story difficult to watch about a subject far from enjoyable.  However, it is impossible not to be in awe of this incredible actor and storyteller – the same man who also writes and stars in an entirely different kind of story at the 2019 Fringe, In Loyal Company.
Rating: 4 E

The Ladies
Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club
Greenside at Infirmary Street

Harry and Ella are taking a break during their special date night out for Ella to hit the loo while Harry waits outside.  As he fumbles around reading band notices on the women’s room outside wall, former classmates from the local school where he graduated wander by, with reunions both joyful and awkward but all with an authenticity of what it is like to be twenty-something and all quick to bring rounds of laughter from the audience.

Tension rises as the minutes pass and Ella does not reappear, especially true when her former best friend but now persona non grata goes inside and also does not soon reappear.  What Harry has not been able to see is replayed for us as audience as the wall turns, bathroom stalls appear, and the hidden ladies room is now open for our full view.  The conversations that ensue are a slice of today’s LGBTQ life where being cis, lesbian, queer, or whatever is seen by today’s twenty-somethings as quite normal.  This in turn allows all those awkward, fun, silly, and overly dramatic conversations once only relegated in plays and films to heterosexuals to now be owned by all – no matter the sexual preference or gender designation. 

Excellent casting choices, insightful directing and masterful directing make this new work by this Cambridge group of students worthwhile and memorable.
Rating: 4 E

Notre Dame de Paris
NDP Circus, based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Paul Liengaard, Director and Producer
St. Patrick’s Church

Performed outside with period-appropriate staging, lighting by torch and candles, and music medieval in source and adaptation, NDP Circus performs a two-hour, thirty-minute version of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (better known to English-speaking audiences as The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  The multi-tiered stage of wood and metal rises to remind us of the famed Paris cathedral as ten performers utilize their circus, dance, and vocal skills to tell the story that is also conveyed in both English and French. 

From fire-breathing to bareback horse riding to aeronautic swinging, the classic story takes on a dynamic, exciting air.  At times the story does seem to lose its way, and some sequences of horses going round and round the outdoor arena or of a dance that goes a few steps too long do mire down the proceedings a bit.  However, the entire evening is so out of the ordinary and so fascinating with his creative modes of storytelling that it is easy not to sweat a few details and just to enjoy the gestalt.
Rating: 4 E

Piramania!  The Swashbuckling Pirate Musical
David Massingham & Tim Frost (Book, Music & Lyrics)
Sloshed Theatre, Producer
Underbelly Bristo Square

Ahoy, ye Maties!  Grab your life preservers, and hang on for a journey on the stormy seas that proves to be laugh-out-loud fun from beginning to end.  That is true even if in between there is deceit and betrayal of best friends, a murder and threats of more, and love that smacks of incest.  Piramania!  The Swashbuckling Pirate Musical is a rip-roaring, good time, populated with musical numbers that bring chuckles and cause toes to tap. 

A cast of ten rings forth collectively and individually in brilliant voice, with most playing instruments that range from flute, piccolo, and whistle to accordion, sax, and percussion.  Bawdy and brassy, sexy and sassy, silly and surprising, Piramania! is the adult version of a Saturday morning cartoon show about pirates and their hunt for the illusive, hidden treasure.
Rating: 4 E

The Pirates of Penzance
Gilbert & Sullivan
The University of St. Andrew’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society
Paradise in Augustines

With voices that overall soar and with comic antics galore, this university based troupe (from The University of St. Andrew’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society) sings and dances through an uplifting, gratifying The Pirates of Penzance.  From the opening to the close, the group sparkles in its rendition of this Gilbert and Sullivan classic, devoid of much scenic help but replete with smashing, often humorous costuming. 

Individual cast members overall sing with full lust and zeal, with only the casting of lead Frederick (the indentured pirate hoping to be released from his obligation on his 21st birthday) being a somewhat weak link.  An alto of soft voice is cast where a stronger voiced tenor is really needed.  But the evening absolutely is nothing less than thrilling when the full cast sings in rousing harmony, filling the arena with rapid, crystal-clear lyrics with not a word of this hilarious parody of operas lost along the way.
Rating: 4 E

Good, Solid Productions Attended & Rated “3 E” or “3.5 E”
(Listed in Alphabetical Order)

Before the Wall
Chris Ruffle, Writer
The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation, Producers
Gilded Balloon at the Museum

A cast of four plays multiple roles to deliver an historical drama when the might of the British military finds itself in 1860 somehow outside the walls of Beijing and its Forbidden City of the Great Emperor.  Confusion seems to reign on both sides of the wall as to how and why the British are there and what to do to get them out of there.  Hot heads rise above more tempered views in both camps, with the results having disastrous results for (of course) the invaded Chinese.  The four, talented actors play both sides of the racial and nationalistic boundaries, with my having frankly some discomfort in watching Caucasian actors taking on their interpretations of Chinese mannerisms and persona.
Rating: 3.5 E

Ben Hur
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the 1959 MGM movie and from the Lew Wallace 1880 novel
Trinity Youth Theatre, Producers and Performers
Greenside @ Infirmary Street

The compressed, crazy style he popularized in adapting The 39 Steps to the stage where four actors play 100+ parts is once again brought to bear in condensing one of the best-selling novels of the 19th and 20th centuries – Ben Hur – into a stage show where the epic, nine-hundred-plus-page book is told by a handful of actors in about 100 minutes.  Kent’s Trinity Youth Theatre brings a cast of eleven enthusiastic teens to the 2019 Fringe, drawing lots of laughs as they spill forth the puns, alliterations, and nonsensical lines of the playwright’s script.  Along the way, they utilize hand puppets, cardboard boxes, and much imagination to re-create Roman characters, sea battles, and the famed chariot race.  Not everything works for this aspiring thespians, but the outing has many moments silly and satisfying.
Rating: 3 E

Freddie: One Night with Freddie
Outbreak Productions, Producers
The Old Dr. Bells Baths

Performed by U.K.’s Number One Queen tribute band, Majesty, Queen’s early days of “Bohemian Rhapsody” to their sell-out shows at Wembley Stadium are performed in a two-hour concert.  The evening’s tour of most of the band’s greatest hits is complete with multiple costume changes by the man himself, including the obligatory showing of much skin.  While there is good music, we missed hearing any narrative about the actual history of the band or of the songs performed.
Rating: 3 E

How to Use a Washing Machine
Georgie Botham (Book & Lyrics); Joe Davies (Music)
SLAM Theatre
ZOO Southside

Cass and James arrive home late enough to miss one last Christmas dinner with their parents before they pack up their childhood memories as their folks sell the house where the siblings grew up together.  As each goes through boxes of toys, pictures, old art projects, and school momentos, emotions build over dreams once held and not met.  Tensions rise and boil over as sibling rivalries rooted long ago raise their ugly heads.  Clashes center on what it means to grow up and who has and has not crossed over the boundary from childhood to adulthood). 

A string quartet plays a background score to highlight the emotional rollercoaster playing out between the siblings and to accompany songs that describe – sometimes satisfactorily, sometimes not – the inner struggles, hopes, and fears of each sibling.  Voices of the two principals are adequate but not always stellar. While there is much to draw and retain our interest during the one hour, the end result is that the story is left much where it began, with family and personal laundry still waiting to be laundered.
Rating: 3.5 E

A Man’s A Man: The Lives of Robert Burns, A Musical
Martin Franssen (Music) & Rod Grant (Book)
Stephen Wright, Producer
Poetry by Robert Burns

The life of Scotland’s most lauded and loved poet, Robert Burns, passes before us from beginning to end in a new musical, A Man’s A Man.  The title seems to ask us to forgive the immortal poet for all his mortal shortcomings.  After all, Robert Burns was a notorious womanizer who had twelve children by four women, leaving most of this off-springs with little-to-no support.  Yet here is also a man who inspired a nation through his written words in verse – words that decried the hypocrisy of the Church and the tyranny of a government that did not acknowledge the need for freedom by the Scottish people.

That poetry becomes the lyrics for many of the songs whose original musical scores by Martin Franssen have Scottish folk rings to them.  While a cast of five sing with powerful voices all, unfortunately the lyrics are largely muddled and lost, probably due to some combination of sound system and actors’ taking on older dialects.  However, the three acts overall do succeed in telling the sweeping life story of this man’s life in an impressive manner, even if we hare left with some questions about his integrity.
Rating: 3.5 E 

Since U Been Gone
Terry Lamb, Creator and Performer
The Queer House and HighTable, Producers
Assembly Roxy

A powerful autobiography account by the writer/performer unfolds as a boy becomes a man while losing in the course his only two friends – one to a horrific accident and one to a suicide.  Along the way, Terry Lamb does somehow find his authentic self as a queer, gender-bending person.  His story is powerfully played and emotionally performed with humor mixed in between tearful tragedies.  Sometimes the performance goes too over the top to be totally effective, especially in terms of the background original music by Nicol Parkinson. 
Rating: 3 E

The Few Shows We Could/Should Have Skipped
(Listed in Alphabetical Order)

The Cabinet of Madame Fanny Du Thé
Kate Stokes & Tom Manson (Book, Lyrics & Music)
Riddlestick Theatre, Producer
Pleasance Courtyard

If there were ever a show that seemed conceived and written by a group of friends – probably university aged – after a night of too-much partying, this is the one.  Sketches that tell the past, time-travel adventures of one, so-called Madame Fanny Du Thé are overall silly but not funny; sung but not all that well; and choreographed but mostly with movements like wildly swinging arms, over-done turns, and childlike romps.  This was one hour that seemed to last an eternity.
Rating: 1 E

Confirmation
Xnthony, Creator, Performer & Producer
Pleasance Dome

Coming out is never easy, especially if a young man is from the only country in Ireland to vote against same-sex marriage in the nation’s 2015 referendum.  Xnthony relates what it was like to grow up in the uber-conservative town that he now harbors a love/hate relationship, focusing for some peculiar reason particularly on his memories as a twelve-year-old going through Catholic confirmation.

Employing original songs along the way that do little to strengthen his narrative, the writer/performer neither has the voice to sell them nor the choreography to enhance them.  In the end, this story is just not compelling enough to recall it much beyond existing the hour.
Rating: 1.5 E

La Sonnambula
Vinvenzo Bellini
Aria Alba Opera for All, Producer and Performers
Stockbridge Church

Aria Alba Opera for All takes Bellini’s La Sonnambula and plops it into the 1950s Scottish Highlands, employing to the already sentimental, pastoral story a huge dose of tongue-in-cheek and local, small town flavor.  While the choice of treatment is mildly entertaining and while the community-based chorus does an acceptable, even at times admirable job singing Bellini’s score, the principals vary from somewhat good to absolutely horrible.

The lead soprano, Fiona Breingan, actually sings lyrically and on pitch and key the part of Amina – something other principals find problems in doing so, at least consistently.  Another lead woman shrieks, almost screams her highest notes while a baritone lead searches sometimes without luck to find his correct notes.  But it is the lead tenor in the part of Il Conte who is so bad that the only comparison I can make is the sound of fingernails scraping across a blackboard. 

Needless to say at the interval, a sizable portion of the already small audience rushed to the exit.  In my opinion, it is unacceptable for a company to stage such a show for the Edinburgh Fringe with some of the cast members that were on stage.  It is an insult to everyone, particularly the ones on stage who were in fact doing a decent job.
Rating: 1 E

Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran
Javaad Alipoor, Writer with Kirsty Housley as Co-Creator
Javaad Alipoor and HOME, Producers
Traverse Theatre Company

Instructed in the waiting queue to download Instagram and to follow “shoppingmallstehran” on our phones, audience members arrived at Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran with phones gleaming and ready at any moment’s instruction to turn volumes to the maximum and to follow a live stream.  But as it turns out, this theatrical device is not really needed since all pictures on our phones are also projected on the wall before us.  Plus every time we are instructed to go live stream, the noise is so loud that the actual monologue of the actor before us cannot be heard.

If that is not presumptive enough, the content that the two performers relate about the wealthy kids of current Tehran elite (who once were a part of the Islamic Revolution) is actually not all that interesting nor enlightening.  The facts they rattle off about how our IPhones and left-over chicken bones will be around for several more millennia are actually overall well-known by most well-read, modern audiences.  What is missing from the show is ‘so what’ and ‘now what.’

Overall, Rich Kids has difficulty retaining coherence and providing nearly as serious or meaningful of a message as the two performers who are extremely serious and intense in its delivery.
Rating: 2 E