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Walmartopia
and
Air Guitar

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Walmartopia

So musical satire isn't dead after all! But who would have expected you'd find it alive and well and living in Wisconsin? That's what's happened with Walmartopia, the cheery, expert, and violent Wal-Mart routing that's popped out of Madison and into the Harry de Jur Playhouse for the Fringe Festival. And it's been a long time since unbridled detestation was this much fun. Husband and wife team Catherine Capellaro (book and direction) and Andrew Rohn (music, lyrics, book, and musical direction) don't fear venting their spleens at the monolithic store chain, but have so tempered their anger with good humor and bouncy, tuneful songs that their serious messages come across more strongly than if the show were a nonstop acid-fest. Aspiring writers, take note!

Walmartopia centers on working mom Vicki Latrell (Anna Jayne Marquardt), who's tired of being passed over for promotions and raises, and of having off-site meetings held at the local Hooters. (These happenings, like many others in the show, are purportedly based on fact.) Vicki's quest to improve working conditions for herself and her daughter leads her to star in the corporate musical ("A Woman's Place is at Wal-Mart" is glorious, rippling musical pageantry), and eventually to the office of CEO Scott Lee. When Vicki tries to speak out against the company's devastating policies, she's shoved into a portal that transports her into a dystopian future where Wal-Mart has literally taken over everything. Only she can organize a revolt before the company's unsustainably low prices and swallow-everything policy destroy the world.

Does the writing, which doesn't even feign interest in a subplot, push its sole message too vigorously? Absolutely. Would Walmartopia's general lack of polish immediately sink it in any non-Fringe New York situation? Yes. Does any of this matter? Not a bit. The creativity, wit, and earnestness of the writing are so refreshing, and the performances so simple and honest, that the show's minor flaws morph into endearments. The one that lingers is Marquardt, who sings decently, but isn't an especially charismatic presence on whom to hang the responsibility of reforming American retail culture. However, Kristy Wilson, a blonde powerhouse who plays a ditzy automatous model from the future, outshines her (and the rest of the company) with some stunning second-act vocals that could start off any revolution on the right foot.

Besides, who can argue with a song and dance utilizing over a dozen of those ubiquitous yellow smiley-face logos? Or a song called "Nibbled to Death by Guppies," about the demoralizing effects of negative publicity? Or the unattached head of company founder Sam Walton singing and dancing (okay, bobbing) in the first-act finale? Walmartopia, much like its namesake, has it all.

Walmartopia
Through August 22
Running Time: 2 hours
Harry DuJur Playhouse, 466 Grand Street
Tickets online and Festival Performance Schedule: www.fringenyc.org


Air Guitar

Countless musicals chronicle characters intent on following their dreams, but aren't those dreams usually bigger than standing onstage and mimicking playing an instrument? Oh well, welcome to the world of Air Guitar, the latest musical flight into fantasy from Sean Williams (music), Jordana Williams (lyrics), and Mac Rogers (book), the team behind last year's Fringe Festival's memorable - if waterlogged - musical Fleet Week. This time around, they're telling the story of frustrated musician Drew (Stephen Graybill), who's wasted his 20s trying to build a career playing solo electric guitar. Now that he's around 30, with a wife (Becca Ayers) and a baby on the way, he needs to get serious and give up his youthful aspirations. Or so he thinks until his undiscovered talent for air guitar (pantomiming playing in time to the music) manifests itself; he might just have a new vocation.

That is, of course, assuming he can overcome his own doubts about its career viability and his own facility with it, which will - of course - require the entire show. Nearly everything is filler, most noticeably the imaginary presence of the Finnish air guitar world champion (Jeff Hiller) who alternately goads, inspires, and derides Drew on his adventure. A sexy groupie-turned-competitor (Renee Delio) and Drew's almost-doctor, live-in best friend Steve (Michael Poignand) provide additional personal color, but don't do much for enriching Drew's personality; he remains a blank slate throughout. (Clayton Dean Smith, as a nutcase emcee and air guitar know-it-all, is almost uniquely excitable enough to make up for it.)

Air Guitar's current undoing is its inability to decide whether it wants to be a serious story about finding yourself or a campy rags-to-riches story. There are other problems, too, of varying severity: While Rogers's book nicely (if slightly) charts the arcs of these up-and-coming adults, the first 20 minutes are earthquake-shaky, and the show has no ending to speak of. The music, augmented by songs from metal band Gods of Fire, is rangy, demanding, and screechily attractive (only Ayers's voice, though, is up to it), but it's mated with vapid, too-rock lyrics that communicate few emotions of consequence. And neither Hiller nor Graybill is particularly convincing an air guitar player, with the associated choreography (by Christopher Davis) becoming repetitive long before the showdown finale. But while Air Guitar needs a considerable amount of work to fulfill its rich promise as an exciting, unexpected musical backstager, there's already much more here than meets the eye.

Air Guitar
Through August 27
Harry DuJur Playhouse, 466 Grand Street
Tickets online and Festival Performance Schedule: www.fringenyc.org