The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)
Every four years, it seems, there’s an arduous, headache-inducing experience that promises to change everyone’s life but usually just ends up unveiling more of the same. No, not a presidential election, but the too-smarmy-for-its-own-good musical satire, of which the New York International Fringe Festival offering Vote!, by Ryann Ferguson (book and lyrics) and Steven Jamail (music and lyrics), is the latest example. The theatrical equivalent of a hanging chad, more notable for its potentiality than its actual content, this show tries to paint a race for president of a high school student council with an adult brush, but just ends up looking immature itself.
The candidates: the popular cheerleader, Muffin (Bailey Hanks), whose ambitions don’t extend beyond becoming a flight attendant; Mark (Morgan Karr), the know-it-all Nixon lover who believes compelling stories and dirty tricks are surefire ways to win; and Nikki (Sasha Sloan), the black girl from the right side of the tracks who may have a better chance of winning if she were from the wrong side. The maneuvering consists of little more than Mark catching Muffin unknowingly hooking up with Mike (Landon Beard), the boyfriend of her best friend, Trish (Nina Sturtz), and using that as the lynchpin for his humiliation campaign, but everyone proves willing and able to get in on the down-and-dirty act.
Covering astonishingly limited ground in a painfully protracted 105 minutes, Vote! is hobbled by obvious, unexciting writing that makes the least of a largely useless roster of characters, including the “hip” government teacher Ms. Fowler, who substitutes mnemonics and hand-jive-style hip-hopping for education (and is played by an impressively miscast Deidre Goodwin). The score’s flavorless amalgam of clichéd political posturing, a humor-free double-entendre date come-on (“D Gates,” comparing an airplane terminal to, uh, you know), and throat-stretching belt-busting tunes of inchoate dramatic relevance don’t improve matters. Nor do dark, unfocused direction by the usually reliable Ryan J. Davis (of the brilliant, and now Broadway-bound, White Noise from the 2006 New York Musical Theatre Festival) and choreography (by Broadway dancer Rachelle Rak) that looks like a limping cross between pep-squad routines and drunken-prom reveling.
At least Sloan gives an attractively heartfelt portrayal of a well-intentioned girl who learns how hard it can be to do the right thing. Hanks, the reality-show replacement for Broadway’s Legally Blonde, has spunk and beauty to spare, but a bewilderingly small voice and a vaporous personality that doesn’t make Muffin easy to love (or, in fact, notice). Karr plays Mark as utterly flaming, a choice not supported by the show itself, and one that detracts from Mark’s slimy Machiavellian manipulations as his defining character trait.
That that gets lost isn’t a surprise. This show struggles so mightily to make grand political statements without offense that it doesn’t have the time to elaborate on its unspoken subject: how dirty politics, even (or perhaps especially) at hopelessly minor levels, can destroy lives. Instead, it satisfies itself with the message that your having the right to vote is more important than who wins any given contest. That’s fine as far as it goes, but any show with a message that simplistic needs to assert itself with fun and flair, two things Vote! generally abstains from.
No one is likely to name Something’s Afoot as a spoof-musical masterpiece, but that Robert Gerlach-James McDonald-David Vos tuner, which had a brief Broadway run in 1976, is a model of wit and surprise compared to Hint. This murderously unfunny musical by Joe Maloney (music, book, and lyrics) and Bonnie Milligan (book and lyrics) tries to blend the whimsical, anything-for-a-joke zaniness of the classic Zucker-Abraham-Zucker comedies (Airplane!, Top Secret, The Naked Gun) with the bloody zing of Agatha Christie, but leaves out the suspense, the laughs, and any trace of original inspiration.
The plot, such as it is, concerns 11 people assembled in a ramshackle English mansion for the reading of a will, which encourages them all to seek out a hidden treasure to share with the deceased Uncle Willy’s last living relative, the hostess Lillian (Susan J. Jacks). Of course, she’s the first one to die, leaving everyone else to scramble to find the treasure and avoid rigor mortis.
You’ll have a harder time than they will, frankly - the characters are too pointlessly archetypal to generate any interest in their success or survival. Whether the mysterious stranger (Jeff Horst), the French sexpot (Lianne Marie Dobbs), the dopey fiancée (Krista Kurtzberg), the underwear magnate couple (Robert Zanfini and Patti Perkins), or anyone else lives or dies or finds the treasure or not is of absolutely no consequence. Relationships and depth are too scant for that, when they even exist at all - for example, why is the American reporter (Rebecka Ray) nothing more than a walking collection of stereotypical Minnesotan speech patterns? And why is the “outsider” Thelma, a lisping, overweight, American nerd, even a character at all, aside from the fact that Milligan is playing her?
You’re not supposed to wonder such things, of course - you're just supposed to go with the flow. But that’s not easy to do when the score is instantly forgettable and far more inclined to stop the action than advance it, when the book is loaded with lame horror clichés (one lengthy scene is performed in complete darkness with the actors holding flashlights to their faces) and dopey pop culture references (Beyoncé Knowles, for some reason, is key to unraveling the mystery), and the performances are overall amateur at best (Jacks comes closest to finding two full dimensions). Halina Ujda’s direction is of the basic, traffic-directing variety that serves the material as well as could be expected, but it doesn’t help things make any identifiable sense or impact. Nothing Ujda, or anyone else, achieves erases your impression that first among the many things Hint needed but didn’t get was a clue.