In 2012 I saw five musicals at the Fringe theatre festival.
Middleton a folk musical. This was of uneven quality. The accompanying recorded music was sometimes amplified too loud to be able to hear the lyrics. It didn’t quite work for me and I’m not sure why not. There were some comic/heartwarming characters typical of a musical, there were some big issues and some funny bits, there was one very good song about being a victim of domestic violence, but I ended up restless and disappointed. Middleton is the town in the Annapolis Valley where I bought my brown apple-applique quilt on my bike trip.
Spring Awakening: a musical, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: Both of these had large casts of local young people. Both of them had professional microphones and amplification used properly, and the music was by live small orchestras, all of which was an improvement over Middleton, which I saw the first weekend of the festival.
Both of them had musical scores that I would call alt-rock or punk, which at first seemed bizarrely anachronistic in the period pieces, but then I realised that any other kind of “show tunes” would be equally anachronistic. And I liked the music a lot in both shows. Spring Awakening had more songs that I could see buying and listening to again though.
Both of them had extremely partisan crowds of young friends who were very responsive. In Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, there was a bunch of appropriate heckling from the back that I couldn’t tell if it was scripted or spontaneous.
If you look up Spring Awakening on Wikipedia, you can see that it was originally a scandalous stage play of the late 19th century, made into a Broadway musical about six years ago. I can see why it was scandalous, if it was anything near as explicit about sexual issues of adolescents and their consequences as the musical is. It was mostly not a happy story, and it couldn’t have been with integrity. I thought it was a good show well done, and I might buy some of the music, but I don’t really want to see it again.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson had a very different mood, that I don’t know how to describe. Way beyond tongue in cheek to making fun of everything. There were a few serious points, like the problems of direct democracy and the disconnect between a Washington elite and the needs of the frontier people, and it was clear that the main objection to Jackson that the scriptwriter and performers had was his role in the Trail of Tears and earlier ruin of Indian nations.
I’m curious about the economics of Fringe shows. I’m assuming that they only reason these two companies can afford to put on these large-cast shows is that the actors don’t need to make enough money to put food on the table etc, and that their producers might also be getting donations for costumes and stuff – and also, they must have a waiver or subsidy of royalties. Spring Awakening was done by a company of recent alumni from Strathcona High School, with a director and music-director who teach and run student theatre there. The production felt more polished and disciplined than Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
Fiorello! – I missed this in the regular Fringe time, but it was an unofficial holdover at the Varscona Theatre. It’s a musical about Fiorello LaGuardia, the anti-corruption New York politician in the 1920s and 1930s. I enjoyed it. It had some cutesy-stereotype-y stuff but the pace was good. The number where he was campaigning on street corners in different neighbourhoods, in English in one verse, then in Italian in the next and in Yiddish after that, was great. Donovan Workun, a local improv guy, played the title role.
Reefer Madness – In the holdovers weekend I went back to the Westbury for Reefer Madness, the 1998 musical. I didn’t see any programs, but I was more caught up in it than for many other shows. It was really funny. Some of the music was catchy and some wasn’t my thing. There were 6 actors each playing 1-2 main characters and some other attributes and chorus. There was a hilarious blasphemous bit with Jesus in gold lamé shorts. I kept thinking about the similarities with Rocky Horror Picture Show – the innocent young couple subverted and seduced in a den of depravity, the didactic lecturer telling the story, the other characters in the reefer house and their interactions with the boss, etc. At one point the actor playing the didactic lecturer was then playing Franklin D Roosevelt, in a push wheelchair with a lap blanket, so that made me think even more of the guy in Rocky Horror. I guess Rocky Horror Picture Show (1977) was playing on the tropes of the original 1936 scare-tactics movie and others of that genre – but since I’d never seen it, I didn’t realise it until now.
One of the reviews, I think in the Vue, alluded to how the dramatic warnings about marijuana are now known to be so ridiculous that it’s easy to laugh at, but that it’s disturbing to be realising that if you substituted heroin or crack, they are or might be true. Which was creepy, for me too.