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Swimming Upstream

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

It's lovely to dream that the influence of Urinetown on Fringe Festival musicals will eventually fade into nothingness. But the execrable Swimming Upstream proves that not enough time has yet passed for that to happen, and we're going to have to wade through at least a few more shows for which artifice and falsity aren't just identifying characteristics but guiding philosophies.

Last year's "champ" in this regard was Granola! The Musical!, an unspeakable hate-child of Oklahoma! and Urinetown. If it's too early to give Swimming Upstream this year's prize, it's unquestionably earned itself a nomination with its story about a nerdy musical-theatre lover who enters a school health competition with a show called Sperm! The Musical, in which... well, if you really need me to tell you, then you'd better go back to high school yourself before you spend much more time at the theatre.

Expounding further on the story is pointless: There's the geek (Doug Kreeger), there's the girl he pines for (Jessica-Snow Wilson) who of course ends up in the show, there's a four-man chorus who also plays all the women's roles (ha ha), there's a performer (the rabidly overacting Christopher Kale Jones) who plays both a conceited student and a conceited, imaginary pro wrestler (how's that for versatility?). The performers bump into each other, tell lame jokes, sing irrelevant and indistinguishable songs utterly bereft of recognizable human emotion, and mug shamelessly until it's time for the curtain call. If this is your idea of musical theatre, line up now!

It's not mine, frankly, but if it's what Marshall Pailet (music and book) and Al Pailet (lyrics and book) want to write, more power to them and director-choreographer Marlo Hunter. But I do wish they wouldn't waste the talents of two terrific musical talents like Wilson and Kreeger; granted, the former was better served as a replacement in Little Shop of Horrors than in last season's Good Vibrations, but the latter recently proved such a magnetic presence in Off-Broadway's Thrill Me that to see him posture and grimace his way through his joke of a role here is almost enough to induce physical pain.

The ear-splitting amplification takes care of that - it's horrid even by Fringe standards of rapid-fire put-ins and load-outs; sound designer Michael Farfalla should be forced to sit and listen to this show for 24 uninterrupted hours to see if he thinks his work is acceptable. At least Joseph J. Egan's sets and costumes are attractive, candy-colored and bursting with ever-expanding quick-change capabilities, and suggest the kernel of a concept not otherwise reflected in the writing, direction, or performances.

Then again, should one expect a concept from a show like this? Probably not; after all, many shows make it to Broadway without one. But expecting honesty? Coherence? Being able to hear? Basic entertainment, however frivolous? These kinds of things have never exactly been foreign concepts at musicals, and deserve to at least be addressed, if not delivered. Instead, Swimming Upstream contents itself with gags and writing so juvenile, Rob Schneider would reject most of them immediately. (Yes, there's a song called "The Pirates of Menzpance," which is exactly as clever as its title indicates.)

I'm not sure of Al Pailet's age; his program bio says he's a mergers and acquisitions attorney, which suggests he's old enough to know better and might also explain his dopey, plodding lyrics. But Marshall Pailet can be forgiven: He's only a freshman at Yale, and thus still has plenty of time to learn how to write shows that can do all the many, many things that this one never seriously approaches.

Of course, he may well choose to revisit this subject matter; his high school years aren't far behind him, and it's thus likely he still has much to say about them. Who can blame him? They probably caused him - as they cause many people - a great deal of pain. But must he pass that pain along to an unexpecting - and mostly undeserving - public? To all the inflicted - including the Pailets - I say: Take two tickets to Altar Boyz and call me in the morning.

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Swimming Upstream: A Sex-Ed Escapade of Genetic Proportions
Through August 27
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, just south of W. 3rd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4488 or outside NY: 1-888-FringeNYC