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Espresso Trasho

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Espresso Trasho would do well to lose its subtitle. The new show at the New York International Fringe Festival, with book and lyrics by Charles Leipart and music by Eric Schorr, moves at far too leisurely a pace to truly be considered "The Caffeinated Musical Comedy."

But if the show never generates the frenetic energy it promises, or that the city of New York - in which the show is set - thrives upon (when not affected by the recent blackout!), it does provide a fine musical adaptation of Richard Sheridan's A School for Scandal, a number of catchy songs, a few solid laughs, and one genuine star-making performance. For the light, diversionary entertainment to which Espresso Trasho aspires, that's practically good enough.

It's a bit uncomfortable in the setup, though, which tries a bit too hard to update gossip and "water cooler"-type conversations to the present day; the time is 1998, with Internet cafes and the associated new media just becoming the rage. (The show's title derives from the name of the business that fuels the love, sex, gossip, computers, and coffee that drive the characters.) E-mails fly like paper airplanes (literally), and technology is behind most of the backstabbing, misunderstandings, and even reconciliations in the show.

And there are plenty. Gallery owner and musician C.Z. (Todd Lawson) gives money his girlfriend Mirielle (Shani Lynn Nielsen) gave him to his brother Joe (D'Monroe), ostensibly to help him pay for an alcohol license of questionable legality, but which really ends up in the hands of Susie (Valerie Wright), C.Z.'s scheming ex, who longs to win him back. Noted potato sculptor Tina (Kristi Tomooka) and her plumber husband Pete (Richard Vida) get involved, causing the confusions to multiply, partners to switch back and forth, and truth and lies to be shared equally among everyone.

While director Marcia Milgrom Dodge keeps a good handle on things, and keeps the story clear and colorfully presented, she can't keep the pace of the show up for more than a few minutes at a time. That's more the fault of the material, with Leipart's occasionally funny and even technologically insightful book depending on talky scenes, with songs of a light pop, almost easy listening variety. The requisite title number, establishing songs for the lovers and the villain, a smoldering double entendre song, and others are all familiar types with only a little musical variety, and a fair amount of non-taxing dramatic content. Josh Walden comes up with a clever idea or two for his choreography, but it's seldom particularly distinguished.

Much the same can be said about the performers, too, despite their talent. Lawson and Nielsen make an attractive and attractively-sung couple; D'Monroe is smooth with his free-wheeling vocal stylings; Erick Devine finds some fine comic moments as two of the boys' family members, one of which has a secret; and Vida has an impressive range, but sometimes seems a bit too assured for his somewhat unassuming character. While Valerie Wright as Susie and Nadiyah S. Dorsey as the androgynous narrator Johnnie Rep make lesser impressions due to the more difficult (and less focused) nature of their roles, they, like the others, fade into memory a few minutes after the play is done.

Not Tomooka, who's giving one of the funniest, most precise comic performances of the year. She says more with a sexy swivel of her hips, a tug on her tight-fitting top, or a single sharp hand gesture the most of the rest of the show's lines and lyrics combined. She finds infinite character in roles as unforgiving as an embarrassed backup-singing street urchin or an ancient mop-toting cleaning woman; she gets all the richest comic material and mines it for everything it's worth. In short, she's a natural born scene-stealer, a miraculous talent even here not being tested to her fullest, like Gwen Verdon in a beginning jazz dance class.

As the show is not really Tomooka's, she's never able to pep it up quite enough to move it beyond pleasant and amusing. But her performance is the type of caffeine the show absolutely craves; the show's given a lightning-bolt of a jolt whenever she appears, and if the other performers could bring that same energy and comic flair to the show, it would really be something. But, for now, Leipart and Schorr should try to figure out a way to harness Tomooka's pure electric vitality. If they can do that, no one will be able to sleep for a night or two after seeing Espresso Trasho.

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New York International Fringe Festival
Espresso Trasho
Through August 24
Running Time: 2 hours with one 10-minute intermission
Linhart Theater, 440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor
Tickets: 212.279.4488