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Fascinating Aida in Absolutely Fascinating

Theatre Review by Jonathan Frank

For over twenty years, the British musical comedy trio Fascinating Aida has been delighting audiences with their unique blend of old fashioned 'girl group' harmonies and wickedly satirical sensibilities. Fresh from their West End engagement, which won them their third Olivier Nomination, Fascinating Aida is making its New York 'theatrical' debut - previous New York sojourns have occurred in cabaret clubs - with Absolutely Fascinating, a collection of 'best of' numbers and songs from their recently released CD, One Last Flutter.

It is hard to distill or describe Fascinating Aida to those unfamiliar with them, as they are truly original and possess no American counterparts. The trio describes itself as being "Absolutely Fabulous meets Noel Coward, as sung by the Andrews Sisters," which gives an adequate starting point.

While their close harmonies recall the sister groups of the 40s and 50s, it is doubtful that the Andrews Sisters would ever have sung numbers that extol the ups (and very occasional downs) of Viagra, plan a tryst in a hotel room, or describe the shock of discovering that the man you brought home is not what he appears to be (although Noel Coward would have felt at home singing lines like "Wearing nipple clamps and bows in his pubic hair/He handed me a whip and said "Beat me there!"/Then asked if he could sniff my underwear/Oh! My shattered illusions!").

Their wicked sense of humor and satirical topicality recall Tom Lehrer at his finest, especially when they tackle themes with a decidedly political and apocalyptic bent, such as "Suddenly New Zealand" and their survivalist anthem "Stick Your Head Between Your Legs" (although telling you what they instruct you to do next would spoil the fun). However, they are equally adept at interpreting tender, bittersweet numbers like "Little Shadows," in which a woman looks back at her childless life with more than a modicum of regret, and "Flowers in Winter," a poignant memory piece ala Craig Carnelia's "Picture in the Hall."

Two-thirds of Fascinating Aida's members (well, half if you include its musical director, Russell Churney) have been with the group almost from its inception. It's founder, Dillie Keane, provides the comic backbone of the group. A natural comedian who can summon a laugh with an arched eyebrow as easily as through her smoky voiced inflections, Keane is responsible for penning most of the musical mayhem. Adele Anderson, a statuesque chanteuse that has been with the group nearly from the start and who is a master of blending haughtiness with zaniness ala Madeline Kahn, ably aids Keane in lyric creation. The third slot of the group has shifted through the years and is currently occupied by Liza Pulman, a kewpie doll of a soprano that resembles a Bad Seed Shirley Temple. Accompanist (and occasional performer) Russell Churney is equally delightful, especially on his solo turn in the ode to politics (and economics) of the art scene, "Yes, But Is It Art."

While the show's structure and tone are more 'cabaret' than 'theatrical' in nature, it is important to note that British cabaret has its roots in the music hall tradition while American cabaret evolved from the more elegant and intimate nightclub scene, making Fascinating Aida's bawdy-but-refined presentational style a surprisingly natural fit for a theatrical venue.

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Brits Off Broadway 2004
Fascinating Aida in Absolutely Fascinating
Through June 13
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200