Musical(s) on the Fringe


Winnipeg Fringe Festival, July 2011

Reviewed by John Herbert Cunningham

As a haze of heat descends upon its streets, Winnipeg opens itself to the 2011 Winnipeg Fringe Festival. The first fringe festival began in Edinburgh, Scotland over 50 years ago and hosted one of T.S. Eliot’s early verse plays. Winnipeg is second in size only to Edmonton in North America and is one of the oldest fringe events in the world.

Winnipeg has eleven main venues and a host of BYOV (Bring Your Own Venue) ones hosting over 150 plays. For a measly $650, you can enter your idea in the Winnipeg Fringe lottery draw in December of each year. For that small sum, as festival producer Chuck McEwan says, you, if you are one of the lucky ones to have been drawn, “receive a guaranteed seven shows at a fully equipped venue, ticket services and 100 percent of the ticket sales revenue.” There is only one restriction: “the fringe has a lottery quota of 50 percent local, 30 national and 20 international.” As to venue assignment, Chuck says:

Companies are primarily assigned venues based on technical/venue needs and size of show such as if a company needs a dance floor, or specific kinds of entrance points, rear projection, room for a band, or just a chair. Of course we can’t meet every company’s needs because most of our venues are quite small.

Venue size varies. For example, the one at Red River Community College holds an audience of one hundred whereas the one formerly known as Manitoba Theatre for Young People holds 280. With tickets generally set at $10, with some venues offering senior and student discounts, a sold-out show at MTYP quickly covers the cost plus providing a tidy profit. Than again, so does RRCC.

This column will be the first of three dedicated to this year’s Fringe Festival. In this one, I’ll advise you of four musical theatre performances. The next two will focus on four drama/comedy performances and the last five dance performances. This is only scratching the surface but will give you some insight into what you’re missing if you’re staying home to avoid the 34C heat; and what you’re missing will include Jem Rolls, Crumbs and Robert Gee as their stand-up comedy and improv routines will not be covered here at all.

The festival opened on Wednesday, July 13 which is the day when I attended three of the musical theatre offerings at this year’s Fringe.

Illuminati II: The Second One is playing at the PTE Mainstage. You can find out the times from the terrific program that Fringe sells for only $5. As the sale of this as well as buttons and other merchandise is the only way that the Fringe makes money, do buy a program to help support them. The play is by Joseph Aragon who has over the past few years proven  himself to be a master at scoring musical theatre, billing himself as the Steven Spielberg of the genre. Not only has Aragon written and  composed music for this play, he is also the composer of music for  two additional plays being offered at this year’s Fringe – Sharon Bajer’s Hersteria and Trey Parker’s Cannibal! The Musical. A rather large cast by Fringe standards and with excellent performances by generally unseasoned actors and super vocal talent, this play asks the question “What do Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and a plastic blue porpoise have in common? And why are we dropping a bomb on Greece?” Lots of fun.

Beware of angry inching

Next up was a play that was a movie that was a play that appeared about three years ago at that Fringe – Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This runs at the Pyramid – one of this year’s BYOV’s. The subject matter is challenging and may not be to everyone’s taste which is why I’m not telling you what it is. This particular performance was performed on tour at the Pyramid last October for a one-night stand that, once you discover the subject matter, is a rather humorous thing in itself. Seth Drabinsky, who plays Hedwig, and  L.A. Lopes,  who plays Yitzhak, are incredible  singers with immense acting talent. This, by far, is the best the Fringe has to offer. Their band, consisting of Jeremy Knowles on drums, Christian Bonner on guitar, Sarah Burton on keyboard and guitar, and bassist Cindy Doire do a remarkable job, although you are advised to take the back seats if you value your hearing.

I finished the evening by returning to the PTE Mainstage  for  Sharon Bajer’s Herstery. Don’t get me wrong. I love Sharon Bajer. I reviewed her Burning Love on this site on March 6, 2011. Even though I was initially left wondering about that one, as the play unfolded I fell for her playfulness and imagination, though giving the performance a rather favourable review. That didn’t happen in this one – and it wasn’t just because there wasn’t even a single Elvis here. At no time was I brought into the play even  though the audience around me was  breaking out  in laughter periodically. I just couldn’t get over the opening scene which was ludicrous and didn’t get any better when its premise fell apart through a logical breakdown  mid-way through. I constantly considered walking out but didn’t want to insult the four actresses— Donna Fletcher, Jennifer Lyon, Debbie Maslosky and Jan Skene— who  were doing a stalwart job with the thinnest gruel.

Friday, I attended the MTC Up the Alley venue to see The Last Gig of Lenny Breau. Colin Godbout blew me away with his guitar playing. His is an immense talent. This, by itself, is a good enough reason to go see this show. That is fortunate as the theatre aspect was extremely limited, something which I really didn’t give a damn about being as I was in the presence of one of the best guitarists I’d ever seen.

The fifth musical theatre show I saw, which I slipped in at the last moment and forgot to tell you about in my earlier count, was Hamlet. This took place at the John Hirsch Theatre, otherwise known as the MTC Mainstage. Hamlet as musical is an interesting proposition. Garnet Thomas did a reasonable job as the Danish prince although his vocal talent, particularly in the final number, could be vastly improved. This was a fun performance and, at least to me, is what the Fringe is all about: rough new performances by eager young performers in a supportive framework. None of the performers has star power. Well, let me take that back. There was one actor who played the rather bit part of Guildenstern, Devon Barker, who demonstrated a great deal of potential. Her’s was the only voice that could be heard at all times. This excellent projection was combined with a dance talent leading me to believe she must have received RWB training. Even her vocal ability, which was given little opportunity to be heard, exhibited an interesting resonance. Her stage presence was smooth and flowing. She is someone we are going to be hearing much more from in future.

That, then, is a brief insight into four, oops five, of the musical theatre offerings at this year’s Fringe. There is more musical theatre to be seen, and many more performances for you to discover. Follow this column for more in the near future.

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John Herbert Cunningham

John Cunningham is a Winnipeg writer. His poetry reviews have appeared in Arc, Prairie Fire, and other literary magazines.