School and War: The Musicals of Winnipeg Fringe Festival 2012


By Stephanie Adamov

As the sun set on the twelfth day, Chuck McEwen gazed across Old Market Square and saw that it was good. Starting with a bang, and ending with some thunder, the Winnipeg Fringe Festival celebrated twenty-five years of theatrical passion and experimentation with record numbers and a whopping 173 plays.

Excitement and anticipation radiated from MTYP to the Kings Head as thousands of audience members poured into the Exchange Distinct from dawn till dusk from July 18-29th. Frequent Fringers could be seen in gaggles as they walked briskly downtown from venue to venue attempting to inhale as much of the festival air as time permitted. With pockets, cleavage and fannypacks jam packed with handbills, they’d congregate at the Beer Tent and offer play suggestions to fellow fringers.

Time and space simply don’t allow even the most avid audiences members to see all of the performances at the festival. This is true despite the first ever “25 Hours of Fringe” experience offered by the festival to celebrate its silver anniversary. A dedicated audience buckled down with coffee cups full to see nine performances that ran through the wee hours of the morning.

Now, in two articles, I’ll retrospectively critique a range of performances for The Winnipeg Review. This first piece will cover five musicals; the second will contain an assortment of comedy and dramatic pieces.

Unintentionally, several musicals in the 2012 Fringe Festival happened to revolve around the subject of school. ELLAmentary reminded everyone of the awkward preteen years of training bras and puberty, Bare followed a group of Catholic high school students as they transition from adolescence to adulthood and Fresher shows the college experience of five first year students.

As the trio of school-themed musicals comes to a close, I believe it is also necessary to mention the two war-themed musical pieces which almost did not make it into the Fringe 25th anniversary repertoire. This was due to the Aqua Books venue fiasco (the new location’s stage wasn’t ready on time) which the Fringe staff resolved by creating an impromptu venue for these performers. Thus, More Power to Your Knitting, Nell and ’33, a kabarett were able to partake in the festival fun.

Christine Aziz’s one person musical ELLAmentary: A One-person Musical About Filling Out and Fitting In summarizes the play in the title. Lighthearted and charming, Aziz wins the audience’s hearts as we journey through another year of school with Ella Salmon. This one hour coming-of-age adventure reminds everyone of how awful playground bullies were and how quickly we longed to grow up.

Aziz as a writer and performer was charismatic in both script and song. The ’90s era of Saved by the Bell and pogs may have been lost on new audience members, but the awkward moments of first dances and the pursuit of popularity remain as resonating experiences to all those who’ve gone through puberty.

Bare, as performed by The Winnipeg Musical Theatre Company, journeys along the rocky terrain of adolescence for a group of students at a co-ed Catholic boarding school. Written by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo this rock musical highlighted the hypocrisy of church teachings as the students constantly struggle with sexuality and personal identity. At times I found that I was greatly reminded of Spring Awakening. However, the show is thankfully set in a more contemporary setting and contains several varying subplots.

The plot could be stagnant at times. The protagonist, Peter played by Kristopher Traquair would repeatedly restate in both text and song the same frustrations of being in a closeted relationship with Jason, portrayed by David Fox. The thirty-two songs over-saturated a 105-minute performance but the vocal talents most definitely did credit to the young and dedicated performers.

As the sun sets on high school, the freshman experience begins. Winnipeg Studio Theatre presents Fresher on the PTE Main Stage, directed by Colin Peterson. The predictable and lightweight five-person musical was filled with some great vocal talent but the script lacked interest-sustaining conflict.

Set in London, I craved more traditional and dry British humour from the students to solidify the setting. However, I did appreciate each reference to Fawlty Towers. Stereotypical college party behaviour with fleeting British accents and drinking games waterlogged the potential to display a spectrum of unique and original characters. Granted each character had a distinctive story to share, but conventional tales diluted dramatic tension and intrigue.

Never have I ever thought I would learn so many knitting songs in a single sitting. With her exquisite vocal talent, Melanie Gall from New York presents her WWI musical More Power to Your Knitting, Nell. The one-woman musical is part narrative and at moments improvised. Gall searches the audience for unique knitting projects and even supplies her own to nutty knitters. Throughout the show she checks up on your progress and even offers knitting factoids and trivia.

Knitting Nell hates knitting but loves to sing. She is offered as a patriotic symbol for women who loved and/or lost their husbands and sons to the Great War. Through song and the power of the radio, she inspires and allows women an outlet to aid their loved ones. Hand stitched garments would be sent over and offer comfort to the battle scarred men. Offering a unique perspective on World War I, Knitting Nell is compelling and captivating.

Journeying forward to World War II, Bremner Duthie presents the thrilling and surreal ’33 a kabarett. At times I felt chills as Duthie teetered between the present and past, reality and insanity. Most certainly not for the fainthearted, Duthie with a painted but fading face visits an abandoned theatre, and performs one last show.

The audience is thrust into his world and for a complete hour is dazzled by his distress. His friends have either run away or been taken by the Germans and sent to camps. He alone remains. Unsure if he should comply or rebel, Duthrie’s gripping and wrenching spectacle was phenomenal.

The musicals of the 2012 Winnipeg Fringe Festival were certainly each unique despite some having similar subject matter. Stay tuned for the next installment where I’ll discuss the comedies and tragedies of the festival.

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Stage and Craft

Stephanie Adamov

Stephanie Adamov has a keen theatrical eye and is an avid theatregoer in Winnipeg, Stratford and abroad.