Before the Fringe went temporarily dark in the blackout, it began with its typical bang of swelter and disarray. Here, a heated account of its first five days.
Friday—3:00 p.m.: Shirtwaist. Air conditioning: absent. The sprightly venue director welcomes us to “the seventh annual New York Fringe Festival, the largest multi-arts festival in North America.”
As most Fringe shows now seek to ride on the pee-stained coattails of Urinetown, many of the entries are musicals. Over the next five days, I will see 12. The first, Ellen K. Anderson’s Shirtwaist, tells of ghosts who continue to haunt the Triangle Shirtwaist Building. The site of a devastating 1911 fire, the building is now owned (and what isn’t?) by NYU. The ghosts speak in ethnic accents and perform popular songs as they harass the living. (Being among the living, I, too, am harassed.) If the heat in the theater is meant to echo the heat of the fire, it is a piece of directorial brilliance. Otherwise, it is unbearable.
9:00 p.m.: One Hit Wonder. Air conditioning: moderate. Midwesterner Jack wins a radio contest and meets British duo Sex Machine. Attired in mesh shirts and buttless pants, they prey on sexually confused Jack. When not simulating intercourse, they also sing (sample lyric: “Put your hands on second base/You know you want to suck my face”). Though they trill, “There’s a party in my pants and you’re invited,” you may wish to tell them you are otherwise engaged.
Saturday—Noon: Lost. Air conditioning: temperate. Lost is my first find of this year’s Fringe. Written by Kirk Wood Bromley and composed by the late Jessica Grace Wing, this children’s musical infuses the tale of the grim Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel with macabre Americana and hipster vernacular. Siblings Hanlon and Gabby lose themselves in the Virginia woods and fall into the velvet-coated clutches of an organ-harvesting mad scientist and his witchy wife Mamba. The songs resolve with terrible prettiness, and the lyrics have Bromley’s signature loquaciousness, as when young Gabby describes Mamba’s style as “hippie baroque Motown.”
2:30 p.m.: Sherlock Holmes and the Secret of Making Whoopee II: The Houdini Incident. Air conditioning: minimal. Sean Cunningham’s shambling farce finds the great detective off cocaine, exercising, and romancing the ladies. But his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, fares worse—suffering a tubercular wife and a murderous widow. Meningitis, leprechauns, and sodomy also feature. Though the cast is willing, the script is mind-numbingly silly. You wish that you, like Houdini, could also escape.
6:45 p.m.: Slut. Air conditioning: none. Since musicals with smutty titles (The Joys of Sex, Debbie Does Dallas) have proved Fringe successes in years past, that Slut sold out its run should occasion little surprise, though some sorrow. A lavishly uninspired roundelay of het coupling, the show features lines such as “Well slap my ass with an egg salad sandwich” and a ship christened the H.M.S. Donkeyballs.
Sunday—Noon: Scalpel. Air conditioning: Where are you? D’Arcy Drollinger’s oddly humorless musical concerns ladies who lunch (sample lyric: “I feel so upset/Hand me another Percocet”) transmuted into zombie assassins by their plastic surgeon. Star Candis Cayne’s breasts give a buoyant performance.
2:30 p.m.: Escape From Pterodactyl Island. Air conditioning: Come back, all is forgiven! If the Bush-Blair alliance was not indication, Pterodactyl provides more proof that the British are prone to bad judgments. Lauded in England, this unfunny pastiche does contain some clever rhymes, but it suffers a peculiar stolidity and a troubling antifeminist subtext. I found myself thinking a thought never before formed at Wings Theater: “This show should really be more gay.”
6:00 p.m.: Pinafore! Air conditioning: Should have brought extra panties. Happily, director Mark Savage’s powder-pink take on the operetta has gayness to spare. Whether Savage’s writing or the cast’s abs are tighter is an utter toss-up. Shipshape work by female impersonator R. Christofer Sands and Debra Lane as fag hag Bitter Butterball. Dare we hope for The Pansies of Penzance?
Monday—3:00 p.m.: Buddy Cianci: The Musical. Air conditioning: lackluster. A cabal of Brown alums craft this true-crime tale of notorious Providence mayor Buddy Cianci, six times elected, twice felony convicted. Though the dialogue tends toward second-rate Damon Runyon, the songs are droll (sample lyric: “Every politician’s a crook, I’m betting/At least with Buddy, I know what I’m getting”). As Buddy, David Stern gives a performance as cheerfully unctuous as his toupee, and director Dean Strober keeps the action running as smoothly as the Democratic machine.
Tuesday—3:00 p.m.: The Trapped Family Singers. Air conditioning: AWOL. Despite an anarchic beginning, in which an irate audience plant points a gun at the stage manager and forces him to croon a few numbers, this show proves hopelessly square. Trapped features numerous scenarios in which singing is compulsory; the humor feels similarly forced. How a song with the lyrics “Hear the music/Revere the music/We’re the music” made it past the Insufferable Police is anyone’s guess. (Fun, not irrelevant fact: The lyricist co-wrote all the Care Bears books.)
7:30 p.m.: The Irreplaceable Commodity. Air conditioning: none. The irreplaceable commodity is not, as the script suggests, happiness, but the two hours of my life which have been consumed in suffering this tale of singing MBAs.
11:00 p.m.: Tri-Sci-Fi: A Chillogy. Air conditioning: Pleasant. Edmund Cionek’s authentically bizarre musical features pieces about Thoreau’s alien abduction, Ed Wood’s angora fetish, and space travel. Shrewdly arranged and well sung, the show ends with a rousing ode to alien life forms. “We’ll walk hand in hand,” sang the cast, “If they have hands!” The crowd, who did have hands—two each, at least—used them to applaud.
More Fringe Festival Coverage: