The third annual "Fresh Fruit" Festival of gay-themed entertainment potpourri is underway and I have had a chance to sample a couple of the first slices of fruit.
This very mixed collection of events (billed as an "international festival of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender arts and culture") opened July 11 and runs through the last day of the month. On that Sunday, July 31, things will conclude with four events at The Blue Heron Arts Center on East 24th Street. The partial list of the day's events should give you a good idea of the diversity within the diversity: a gay musical set in the 1920s, an artist-activist from Slovenia talks about women's sexuality, a one-man show about and by a gay man in the punk rock scene, and a free reading of a new play about a student trying to mix his gay and Jewish identities (that reading, New Words, has a one-time free-of-charge presentation at noon and was written by Warren Hoffman, an alumnus of Talkin' Broadway staff). Some events are performed more than once (see www.freshfruitfestival.com for full schedule and details on all events).
I attended two events at Greenwich Village's landmark cabaret/ theatre, The Duplex, on July 13.THE GIRL THAT I MARRY
The early show was Elaine St. George's sparkling and friendly solo cabaret show, The Girl That I Marry. I'd been very attracted by a preview via the 6-song CD I reviewed for our Gay Pride Week edition of our Sound Advice column. Elaine is a warmhearted singer who can be brassy and belty when she wants and creamily croony when mood and song suit that treatment. Either way, she's quite entertaining in person and on disc.
As a comfortably out lesbian in a committed relationship, Elaine wanted to put together a show commenting on gay marriage during the current times of debate and changing laws. Elaine doesn't rant, rave or get hostile as she advocates for gay and lesbian marriage in speech and song. Instead, she adheres to the old saying, "you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar," and she has honey in her rich, warm voice. She also has perspective, having been around small towns and small minds, ignorance and struggle. In her show, she talked about her mother who was a schoolteacher but needed to be taught a thing or two about sexuality. It helps that Elaine is quite funny. She can be sharp without being bitter, and is forgiving and understanding of misconceptions about gay people. Her act had more talk than most, as she chooses to set up most of the songs in the context of gay marriage and as reflections on her own experience.
The act included a medley which went back and forth many times between the very different moods of two classic Broadway numbers about an imminent wedding ceremony. The songs are the joyful but not innocent "I'm getting married in the morning" tale "Get Me To The Church On Time" from My Fair Lady and the hilariously neurotic protest of Stephen Sondheim's "Getting Married Today" from Company. The juxtaposition of relaxed acceptance and panic was, well, a panic! Elaine's show also included another Sondheim piece, "So Many People." A greedy fantasy of the perfect big, big, celebration was in Irving Berlin's "An Old-Fashioned Wedding," the song added to the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun. It's that show from whence comes the title of Elaine's act, although she only sang a bit of it, expressing a lack of enthusiasm for the lyrics about "The Girl that I Marry" as being "as soft and as pink as a nursery" and wondering how anyone could imagine mighty Ethel Merman, the musical's star, as "a doll I can carry."
There were irreverent moments (a quote she found stating that "marriage is the wastebasket of emotions") and classic songs about long-term relationships like "The Folks Who Live On the Hill" (Kern/Hammerstein). Talking about her own relationship and gently tossing out quips reeking of common sense, the singer made a case for gay marriage as the only logical move.
In her special Fresh Fruit Festival show, she made any opposition seem fruitless. The Duplex is a tiny space which has no choice but to be intimate. Thus, the quieter, thoughtful numbers like "I'm Old Fashioned" were especially effective. But there's no getting around the fact that this woman is an old-fashioned entertainer and that means roaring out a song in a no-frills style. Nothing fancy or with multiple-layered with psychological complexity is found here; it's just a feel-good Gay Pride/Gay Bride act. And like the perfect wedding day, there was a very nice reception. (Applause, applause ... smiles and friendly laughs).
FRESH FRUIT COCKTAIL
The 9:30 show was, for the most part, more serious. Featuring several singers and many gay and lesbian songwriters, Fresh Fruit Cocktail (All Unnatural Ingredients) was a show with variety. It began with a group number with colorful feather boas and high spirits. That opener was "I Can Be an Icon, Too," a wannabe-superstar's wish written by Fred Barton, who was not one of the singers of this song, but was on the bill to perform another of his originals, "Pour Me A Man." That lusty plea, full of double entendre, was played and sung by Fred in the character (and wig) of his old standby interpretation of Miss Gulch, the nasty dog-hating neighbor from The Wizard Of Oz whom Fred imagines as having quite a libido. Sans wig or costume, he reappeared later as a last-minute substitute for a "gender illusionist" who had to bow out. Fred bowed in to regale the crowd with the "Drag Queen's Lament," a richly detailed character piece by Bob Ost who put together (and directed) the entire show.
Bob also wrote strong, no-apologies comments on society's attitudes toward gays to set up the numbers and put them in context. Not one to sugar-coat anything, he called things as he saw them; the performers took turns doing the comments, some emotional and others hard-hitting wake-up calls. Bob's re-imagining of Stephen Sondheim's lyric concept of survival, "I'm Still Here," as a personal and political saga of dealing with AIDS was intense and biting. Miles Phillips portrayed the man at battle and that, along with another moment wherein the singers named artists who had recently passed, was enough to sober up anyone otherwise feeling the effects of the Duplex's two-drink minimum.
Within the varied program were heartfelt moments from Carolyn Montgomery, a warm and sympathetic presence, and a longtime favorite of mine, Marieann Meringolo, who can be a powerhouse singer sending shivers up the spine. This time around, she was given more introspective songs and she doesn't shy away from naked emotionality and sentiment, being a fine muse for songwriters with that bent, like Karen Benedetto. David Gurland provided some welcome comic relief with "Last One Picked," about a non-athletic schoolboy's tribulations, from Dick Gallagher and Mark Waldrop's Whoop-Dee-Doo!. Marcus Simeone was also on hand for some open-hearted singing in his high-voiced floating style.
An extra added attraction was longtime cabaret favorite John Wallowitch, who was warmly received as he sang his own trademark "Bruce" and "Mary's Bar," a bittersweet memory song. With his note-perfect timing, he made the most of each comic twist and rhyme in the first song, and every tender emotional corner in the latter. What a pro!
When Messrs Wallowitch and Barton were not accompanying themselves, Rick Leonard was at the piano. He did a yeoman's job with the wide-ranging material and I was particularly impressed with his accompaniment. Others might have let the heavier moments become mawkish or melodramatic, but he seemed to find the happy medium. Not that kind of happy - the show soft-pedals neither the present state of the gay rights struggle nor its history which, judging from the scripted pronouncements between songs, Bob has lived through and knows. In this first performance, which had limited ("time-challenged") rehearsal, the singers were reading the spoken sections from cards, not quite "owning" it yet. This gave the effect of the offstage Ost as host. The audience was gracious and appreciative at both shows, and there was a sense of preaching to the already converted. However, either act could be a consciousness-raiser for a different kind of group.
Asked about his goals for this show and beyond, Ost said that he wants cabaret to reach more of a theater-going audience. "The shows I am developing, including Fresh Fruit Cocktail, are my attempts at creating more theatrical experiences within cabaret." His shows "have a dramatic arc and what I hope is a throughline that audiences will follow, either consciously or not." Bob is also involved with the Midtown International Theatre Festival (it begins today); his similarly theatrical cabaret piece with Vickie Phillips is part of that.
With the increasing number of out songwriters writing of personal experience, future editions of Fresh Fruit Cocktail could have many choices for mixing and matching material while seeking a balance of message and entertainment value. I admire the commitment.
Other events in the Festival include poetry, plays with gender preconceptions (Somewhere In Between by Ronny Almog, July 24-27) and political struggle as themes (Barbara Kahn's futuristic Pen Pals and Waafrica from Kenyan play wight Nanna Mwaluko, both July 21-24). I can heartily recommend the one show I've already seen, the musical revue What's Your Problem? which is a side-splittingly funny night with songwriters Hector Coris and Paul L. Johnson with songs performed with punchy panache by Hector and three perky, smirky partners in gay life parody (Matthew Myers, Dawn Trautman and Travis Bloom). Prices vary, ranging from a reasonable $25 down to an even more reasonable free-of-charge.
The Fresh Fruit Festival runs through July 31 at with events from July 20-31 all at the Blue Heron Arts Center. The artistic director of the is Carol Polcovar and Jeff Leeds is managing director. For details, visit www.freshfruitfestival.com