Down for the Count
Barbara & Scott love Dracula (kidding!) and weigh in on the Fringe's Africa & Plumbridge, Golden Prospects, and Mimi Le Duck.
Of course, if you're a musical theater fanatic, you'll want to see it anyway -- and, truth be told, Dracula is not without its memorable moments. (There aren't many, but why throw garlic on the show's grave?) There are three genuinely tuneful, exciting songs by Frank Wildhorn (music), Don Black and Christopher Hampton (lyrics) in the score, the best of them being "Life After Life." Given the constraints -- and we mean that quite literally -- put upon Tom Hewitt, he gives a vivid, soaringly sung performance. Melissa Errico looks gorgeous, sounds lovely, and let's kindly not discuss her acting. Don Stephenson stands out as Renfield. Catherine Zuber's costumes are beautiful and the flying by Foy is fun, if a bit overdone.
Otherwise -- oh, what a catalogue of catastrophes! Des McAnuff's direction is all about effects, which is not the same thing as being effective. The Black-Hampton book spins out of control in the second act. Heidi Ettinger's set design is distracting. Most of the music and lyrics sound generic. Worst of all, the show is simply no fun. We have no problem with the choice to avoid camp and essentially tell the Dracula story straight; but the story is supposed to be one of passion, and this version is mostly bloodless.
Africa & Plumbridge is an earnest musical about the rescue of a young woman who's lost in the American foster care system. The book of the show is pretty predictable and contains little dramatic tension. There are practically no villains in sight here -- not the nun who runs the place, not the beautiful lawyer who supports it, not even the pompous but caring psychiatrist who treats the kids. There's just one black hat in the show, and he's a lawyer. (Why did that not surprise you?)
In its FringeNYC production, this well-meaning piece sets off fireworks principally because the cast is so exceptional. The music and lyrics of Sue Carey (who conceived the show) and Karena Mendoza are less memorable than they are singable. That's an interesting distinction: The cast members deliver these mediocre songs with so much brio that you only wish the material was worthy of their talents.
Janeece Aisha Freeman plays Africa, an angry young woman who is in a state of constant rebellion even though the orphanage in which she lives comes across like a delightful musical theater camp. Freeman is a star in the making. Tall, beautiful -- especially when she smiles --and talented, she's got everything except a starring role in a Broadway musical. She can act and, brother, can she sing! Freeman has an amazing range and exquisite vocal control; the sounds she makes are not to be believed. Her co-star, Liz McConahay, plays Sharon Plumbridge, a rich and gorgeous lawyer who supports Africa's orphanage with her time and money. McConahay has presence and the kind of acting chops that allow her to get away with many expositional lines while still sounding entirely natural; plus, she's got a great belt voice. When she and Freeman sing their duets, it's thrilling.
The show is lucky to have many strong supporting players, as well. Among those who stand out for either their singing or their acting or both are Eric Anthony (and he's some dancer, too), Chipper Cook, Julie Reyburn, and Charissa Armon. The production is directed with economy and pace by Jim Brochu, who makes you forget that the show is more than two-and-half hours long -- a hefty length for a Fringe production.
You'll Quack up!
The Fringe is awash with sophomoric musicals -- and sophomoric plays. That's why Mimi Le Duck is such a breath of fresh air. Here's a mature, intelligent, well-crafted work that makes no references to other musicals, nor does it self-consciously refer to itself. Rather, it offers the verities of solid musical theater: engaging melodies (Brian Feinstein), witty lyrics (Diana Hansen-Young), and lots of heart (book by Hansen-Young).
We've seen a lot of mediocre stuff at the Fringe this year and in years past, so one tends to get very excited over anything that exhibits genuine talent. Mimi Le Duck has its faults, chiefly in its clichéd structure and its rather weak second act. But there's much that's inspired and winning about this story of a Mormon housewife from Ketchum, Idaho who is visited by the ghost of Ernest Hemingway and is urged to flee to Paris.
The story unfolds with some curious twists. Instead of the usual tale of characters who shed their "normal" lives to embrace a more artful existence, half the characters in this musical move in the other direction, giving up on their fantasies to find happiness in reality. The message is mixed, but at least that works against the clichés.
Any important Off-Broadway musical would kill for the cast of Mimi Le Duck. The show stars the luminous Annie Golden as Mimi. At once vulnerable and determined, she brings a delightful reality to the character, as well as her warm and beautiful voice. As Mimi's husband, Bryan Scott Johnson gives a fully realized performance and wisely plays up the man's genuine love for his seemingly nutty wife. Allen Fitzpatrick has authority as Hemingway; Robert DuSold is deliciously desperate as an oyster shucker who wants to be a private detective; Louis Tucci is hilarious as a Spanish gypsy; and Kristine Zbornik is rip-roaringly funny as a sculptor with a secret.
Perhaps the highest praise we can give to Mimi Le Duck is that it didn't at all feel, sound, or come off like a typical Fringe musical.
There's Gold in Them Thar Melodramas
There is fun to be had at Golden Prospects: A Los Angeles Melodrama. In this delicious combination of ham and cheese, the audience is urged to boo, hiss, and call out warnings to the oblivious cast. Spectators may react any way they want, so long as they don't rush the stage -- or so they are instructed at the beginning of this tongue-in-cheek show, written and directed by Colin Campbell.
The plot centers on the land boom in Los Angeles and touches on everything from the oil business to goings-on in Hollywood. Among its many characters, it has three villains, two heroines, two heroes, and one increasingly decreasing martyr: The heroine's mother successively loses limbs throughout the course of the show. (At one point, she says, "I'd get up and shake your hand, but I can't get up and I don't have a hand.")
The acting is deliciously over-the-top -- and the bad guys, as you might imagine, are the most fun to watch. Vin Knight as Maurice Fairfax, a sleazy movie producer, is impeccably evil. Laura Goodman is a riot as the mother who gives everything she's got (she also goes blind). Jordin Ruderman is swell as Mabel Fairfax, a bad woman who tries to do right when she falls in love, as is Suli Holum as Lucy Goodman, the real heroine of the piece.