Gem! A Truly Outrageous Parody!
New York International Fringe Festival - FringeNYC
Love Is Dead: A NecRomantic Musical Comedy
To my knowledge, it’s not written anywhere that every spoof of a popular entertainment genre must have songs and dances. And why would any theatre company want to bother in the first place without musically inclined actors begging for the chance? Yet the potentially uproarious Love Is Dead: A NecRomantic Musical Comedy is sabotaged by its creators’ insistence that it sing, even though no one involved with it can.
The best explanation for this disparity, if one that can only be inferred from what’s onstage, is that the hokey conventions of traditional musical romances - like those starring Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly - don’t cut it in the real world. Thus if you have, say, an introverted mortician (James Asmus, also the librettist), whose only sexual conquests are corpses he’s defiled, caught in a love quadrangle with a dead woman (Lyndsay Hailey), the girlfriend of a serial killer’s victim (Thea Lux), and the forensic geneticist trying to crack the case (Megan Johns), these people would never be legitimate singers.
But since all this isn’t exactly drowning in realism anyway - especially since the dead folks prove themselves increasingly adept detectives as the evening unfolds - pleasant-sounding notes could find a home someplace. Julie Nichols even seems to have composed her score with actual singers in mind - if the songs riff on everything from Gershwin to Sondheim to Boublil-Schönberg, they still include duets, iron-throated ensemble numbers, and plenty of sustained notes that are never allowed to realize what potential they might well possess.
Love Is Dead’s musical demerits are even more distracting because its play portions are so richly realized. Asmus’s concoction of Dexter, CSI, and Saturday Night Live is smartly plotted, and keeps you guessing at its mysteries even as you’re laughing at its absurdities. The cast is a crew of adept comedians, who’ve been scrupulously drilled by director Andrew Hobgood; particular standouts include Dan Jessup as the inept investigating sheriff and Forest Hynes as his even more idiotic deputy, but everyone is good for half a dozen giggles or more.
So why make them sing instead of just letting them clown their hearts out? Neither Asmus nor Nichols ever provides a conclusive answer. A production of Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre, Love Is Dead would be considerably less annoying and more engaging if its cast were allowed to do what they do best - and not forced to remind you every few minutes that singing is not among their numerous gifts.
Run Time: 2 hours
Every year's Fringe Festival has at least one. You know, an unapologetic musical takeoff on something that was essentially silly to start with. While Amanda Allan's Gem! A Truly Outrageous Parody! isn’t likely to replicate the success enjoyed by the prototypical example, Urinetown, almost a decade ago, it's still a fresh and funny example of how to do almost everything right.
Its target is a chapter in 1980s animation history so patently ridiculous, it's hard to believe it hasn't been skewered more frequently over the last 20 years. Jem ran on television from 1985 to 1988, and has been locked in those same years ever since. Shocking but true, the whiny problems of competing girl-rock bands with Technicolor hair, one member of which commanded a holographic computer using star-shaped earrings, didn't survive into the 1990s!
But Allan's adaptation ripples with contemporary cleverness, lambasting the TV show’s rampant improbability, with the central shelter for teenage homeless girls, bizarre battles between recording-company magnates, and the PCing of everything before PC was a verb (and was newly a noun) intact. Director David Lee, choreographer Robyn A. Skaren, video designer Cayton Clark, and costume designer Angela Harner have given the show the heaving-breath pace and the luxuriously tacky look it needs to compete with its source cartoon.
Central here is Glennis McMurray, a hyper-plaintive delight as Gem and her sedate alter-ego Generrica Benton. Her bandmates are Lauren Possee, Debora Avila, and Paula Kay, all heated explosions of the TV series's thinly veiled stereotypes; their rivals are the lively Eliza Skinner, Jen Hammaker, and Danielle Pivetta as the punk-wannabes The Misfires, for whom gleeful hate is the ultimate means to an end. Cinergy, Generrica's quasi-magic computer, is played on video by summer festival parody circuit doyen Jeff Hiller with more hilariously loaded, come-hither looks than in the whole of silent cinema.
Telling a typically typical exclamation-point-laden story - Battle of the Bands! Mansion in jeopardy! Avoid getting crippled! - Gem can only go so far without overstaying its welcome. Even the running time of slightly over 30 minutes (counting two classic after-school commercials for an extra dollop of period flavor) is pushing it - there's a reason Jem is never shortlisted on tallies of animated classics. But Gem! leaves you both anxious to revisit the original and thrilled you’ll never have to - the definition of an on-target parody at the Fringe or anywhere else.
Run Time: 45 minutes