[Broadway Ad Network]

[Broadway Ad Network]

  • The Seventh Annual New York International Fringe Festival has come to a close and descriptions of it as "fun," "saucy," "wild," "kinky," "funky," "weird" and "awful" were apt. Over 20 days (August 8-24) - four more than in 2002, and with more than 200 presentations (including outdoor performance art), selected from over 740 submissions from across the country and 10 nations, the '03 Fringe was the biggest ever. And the hottest.

    There were several firsts: larger venues, such as The Great Hall at Cooper Union and Demo Hall at Our Lady of Pompeii church on Carmine at Bleecker; and the Fringe spread its borders into the West Village. One thing remained the same: the horrendously uncomfortable heat factor in most venues. One thing remained the same: the horrendously uncomfortable heat factor in most venues.

    Does discomfort have to be synonymous with the Fringe? The lack of a/c is amazing. Isn't it 2003? But then, with all our technology advances, the Blackout of '03 occurred. Veteran Fringers know to go with lots of Wash 'N Drys and heavy-duty paper towels. Thankfully, some shows had the foresight to pass out fans.

    There is no way for a normal human being to see everything, but some try. There were 40 musicals and 30 solo shows, comedies, dramas and dance pieces in over 20 venues [compared with '02's 22 musicals and 30 plays]. At the per-show price of $15, the Fringe is a huge bargain in theatrical adventure and discovery. More Lunatic Passes, which entitle admission to every show, at $500 a pop [up $100 from '02] than ever were sold. The most popular tickets were the Fiver ($65) and Flex ($10, 10 shows) - a bargain for anyone in search of artistic meltdown.

    With over 50,000 tickets sold, the '03 Fringe gross will surpass '02's $100,000 + [the tally was delayed because of the blackout]. The '01 Fringe brought in a paltry $40,000. Not only has the Fringe grown beyond founder and producing artistic director Elena K. Holy's and anyone's wildest expectations, but it has also become big business.

    Some feel the success of the Fringe, with theatrical producers assisting to develop presentations, will mean an end to its independence and quirkiness. However, with "quirky" and "kinky" the bywords for the majority of shows, you really had to look hard to find a "theatre ready" show, such as famed Fringe alumnus Urinetown.

    Ms. Holy stated that, in terms of box office receipts, the '03 turnout indicated Fringegoers were looking to do more than just celebrate offbeat theater. "The strong response was also a desire to support the rejuvenation of lower Manhattan," she said. With older audience members, some with families in tow (even at shows with questionable content), very much in evidence, the Fringe is no longer a fest for young theatergoers.

    Not surprisingly, the biggest draws were the musicals, shows with exploitative titles and the sex shows -- erotica which ranged from R to raw, raunchy and lewd. There was much emphasis on (simulated) sex.

    Quality, of course, is in the eye of the beholder and, as in past Fringes, it varied. The first breakout is Singularity Productions' bizarre play about the aftermath of a policeman's split-second decision, How to Act Around Cops. After winning two FringeNYC awards [Logan Brown, playwright; Jon Schumacher, director], it will run at least through September 19th at East Fourth Street's Kraine Theatre. Singularity took home an '02 Fringe Award for Best Overall Production for one-acts Five Frozen Embryos by actor David Greenspan and The Sleepers by Christopher Shinn.

    Several shows were quickly sold out: the parody Cats Talk Back; the romantic comedy, For the Love of Tiffany; Eliza Jane Schneider's 30-character comic take from Los Angeles in which she plays disenfranchised Americans, Freedom of Speech [Schneider is the voice of South Park's female characters]; and Suspect: A Killer Musical by Keith Herrmann and Barry Harman [whose Romance/ Romance garnered two Tony nominations on Broadway run and which has become a stock perennial].

    Some of the buzz centered on shows that had Off Off runs, which seems to be the opposite of what Fringe goals should be. Isn't it about, or shouldn't it be about, discovering new works and then they get a commercial run?

    Slut, Poseidon! An Upside-Down Musical and a gay spin on Gilbert & Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore were in this category.

    [Cats Talk Back and Pinafore! were among the award winners for Overall Production; Freedom of Speech was among the Solo winners.]

    Slut, a relationship musical by Stephen Sislen and Ben Winters [presented by New York's PenneySeal Productions and directed by Sarah Gurfield] was a hot ticket even though some felt the title a turnoff. In the end, that didn't keep audiences away; but the show is most inappropriately titled. And solely for exploitative reasons. Like '02's The Joys Of Sex, which is in development for a move to Off Broadway, it wasn't as prurient as its title suggested. Sadly, the title may prevent the musical from commercial life outside liberal metropolitan areas. The score, book and presentation were quite professional and the cast excellent - especially leading man Stephen Bienskie and stunning Nicole Ruth Snelson [who outglows Courtney Thorne-Smith, formerly of Melrose Place and Ally McBeal and now co-starring on According to Jim.] There was an outstanding comic performance by gangly Jeff Hiller in a number of guises. If the Fringe gave awards for Most Attractive Cast Members, Slut's Snelson, Catherine Carpenter and the wonderfully comic Mary Farber would fill the category.

    Poseidon!, a parody of the '72 disaster film, which evidently has a huge cult following at Chicago's Hell In A Handbag company, had book and lyrics by Daivd Cerda and music by Cerda and Scott Lamberty [with additional music from other sources]. It arrived with some raves and the largest cast: 25! However, the Demo Hall acoustics and the cast's lack of projection were problematic. It was stupid, insipid and sometimes quite funny, but the back story - or was it the front story - was muddled. Steve Kimbrough should have won something for his dead-on take of over-the-hill Shelley Winters [one of the heroines of the film].

    You must respect anyone with a dream in this business and who finds the wherewithal to put on a show [especially for the various companies who come to New York at their own expense for several weeks], so I admired Seth Bisen-Hersh's tenacity. He was at just about every Fringe show when he, as composer/lyricst of Meaningless Sex, wasn't playing and music directing, to solicit ticket buyers and members of the media. His musical won the TheaterMania Audience Favorite Award. Which audiences did that include? At the performance I attended, the audience sat stone-faced and was merely polite. The Great Hall was stiflingly hot, so that might have accounted for something. But the book by Brendan Clifford [from a concept by Bisen-Hersh and Andrew Henkes, who directed] was, well, awful. Bisen-Hersh shows promise as a serious composer, but it's ironic that a musical purporting to be so hip about teen relationships didn't have a a single rock number. His lyrics, using graphic four-letter words and sexual terms, were an embarrassment. And the less said about the cast, the better. A measure of the audience's lack of response was evident when, at the finale, Rori Nogee and Chat Privette, who'd been relegated to moving props, stepped center stage and sung "Small Parts," the best tune in the show, and got a resounding ovation.

    These won't make the move to Off Broadway and Broadway, as did Urinetown; or Off Broadway, as did '98's Last Train To Nibroc, '99's Never Swim Alone, '01's Debbie Does Dallas and 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com and '02's Matt and Ben.

    Others might, such as "Buddy" Cianci: The Musical about Providence, RI's flamboyant, forward-thinking, allegedly scheming [and now imprisoned] five-term mayor. The award for Best Fringe Production Song should, hands down, go to Mike Tarantino and Jonathan Van Gieson for "The Ass You Have To Kiss Today."

    Rick Batalla, the creator and star of Blake: Da Musical, which sets out to solve the mystery behind TV/film star Robert Blake's murder conviction, took one of the Performance awards home to L.A. While the show was insane and insipid, Batalla acquitted himself nicely. It helped that he bears a resemblance to Blake. His totally irreverent antics [over the top slapstick, swagger, tearing apart sets, breaking the Fourth Wall with ego-building comments and barking commands to his tech crew] made the hour fly by. But the canned music didn't help, and, even with body mikes, it was hard to understand what was being said or sung. If the Fringe gave an award for the actor in the tightest costume, co-star Meleney Humphrey in those painted-on jeans would be the sole winner. Whodunit, you ask? If I told you, you wouldn't believe me.

    Certainly the most polished production was Suspect, with its set pieces and Victorian-era costumes [I kept wondering if the cast was as miserably hot as the audience]. It was billed as A Killer Musical ; however, with all the convoluted goings on, I was never sure whodunit or why it was important to do it. Based on a novella by detective writer Wilkie Collins, the story was [I'm assuming] updated to include, among too many other subplots, a coming out dilemma between two Scotland Yard detectives. The five-member cast worked hard but was uneven. Streamlined, this musical could have a long life in regional and dinner theatre. Harman and Hermann are theater veterans and can write theater songs [as evidenced by the piece's showstopper: "A Terrible Tragedy," in which Ian Knaur, as a villian of sorts, takes two insurance agents on a tour of a castle and tells an interesting plot twister while providing an inventory of the contents]. The plot kept thickening and soon you got lost in the sharp turns. If I were presenting awards, one would go to Ken O'Brien for transgendering back and forth so easily; and kudos to Mark Capri, for if he could deliver the mind-boggling "Letters from the Courier," there's nothing he can't do in the world of theater.

    Had there been an award for Most Frantic Performance, undoubtedly it would have gone to wild man Anthony Mario Gelsomino in Madonna in the Title [he also wrote it, as he did '01's Chelsea Murder Mystery]. The nutty premise is that if you can't get Madonna to star in your play, call it, well, Madonna in the Title. There were genuinely hilarious moments, almost all greatly benefited by Jane Aquilina, a born comedienne with impeccable timing.

    Of the plays I saw, the best written were Timothy Nolan's drama about a pedophile priest, Acts of Contrition, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Say You Love Satan, a romantic comedy about a boyfriend from Hell. Both were among recipients of playwriting awards.

    Peter Marks of The New York Times wrote of the numerous Fringe offerings: "Was a human being meant to be this entertained?" This seventh Fringe Festival, though it had all the usual elements [ i. e., fun, kink, funk and erotica] might not have quite lived up to audience expectations, but its incredible financial/popular success, which suggests it's no longer the little engine that could, will hopefully signal that future Fringes will not so much emphasize bigger but concentrate on better. I'd hate to see some of the submissions that were rejected!

    For applications for '04's FringeNYC, go to www.fringenyc.org.


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    Why are you looking all the way down here?
    For more articles by Ellis Nassour, click the links below!



    Or go to the Archives

[Broadway Ad Network]

[Broadway Ad Network]