The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)
When a musical has everything going for it except spark, you may find yourself wishing it were instead a colossal flop - that way, you could at least delight in its destiny of nowhere. Unfortunately, no such reassurance is possible with Scandalous People: A Sizzling Jazzical. This show at the Minetta Lane Theatre, by Benny Russell (music) and Myla Churchill (libretto), must be one of the most professional, elaborately realized, and luxuriously appointed musicals ever seen at the New York International Fringe Festival. But its terrific cast and exquisite trappings can’t disguise the fact that it’s low-impact theatre of the most disappointing kind.
Churchill’s story follows the progression of Prohibition-era Harlem performing artists to legit stages in the run up to the Great Depression. Dewey Demarkov (Eugene Fleming) is the Ziegfeld-lite impresario behind the Do Drop Inn, an uptown speakeasy whose floor acts are filled with attractive chorus girls (that Dewey has personally, uh, hand-picked); two sisters, Desiree (Nicole Hill) and Cindy (Nirine S. Brown), the former a smoky vocalist and Dewey’s wife, the latter a lithe and gifted hoofer who’s long loved Dewey from afar; and enough talent and variety to attract the come-hither regular Mae West (Jennifer Swiderski). So popular is the club that it’s also attracted the notice of a Bronx gangster, Dutch (Ryan Clardy), who wants to move the whole show to Broadway - with, of course, a few small changes.
This is a premise rife with possibilities, and Russell and Churchill bypass none. Scandal, adultery, and depression play key roles in the characters’ lives. The harsh realities of show business, both devastating and elevating, with individualism and working together both of paramount importance, receive their just due. The ensemble women are appropriately eye-popping, all frantic legs and perpetual shimmy as they pound through Obediah Wright’s remarkable choreography, which cannily demonstrates the fusion of black (tap) and white (ballet) styles that was soon to revolutionize mainstream American musical theatre.
Topping the 21-person cast is a roaring nine-piece band (under Tommy James’s sinewy musical direction) blasting out the brass-and-sax-heavy score with irrepressible supper-club abandon. The costumes (by Lisa McFadden) are wonderfully rich, counting crisp evening wear for the headliners and flowing strings of barely connected sequins for the chorines. Director Fredi Walker-Browne has done superlative work, imposing pacing so precisely measured and staging so slick that the elements all unite without showing their seams. The cast is faultless, too, with Fleming and Hill magnetic duelists at the show’s center, and the other performers, down to the tiniest roles, plowing through the tale just as the show itself suggests must be done: as if their race, as well as their livelihood, is truly on the line.
But despite everyone’s best efforts, the show is plagued by a desperate, educational feel that prevents any part of it from catching fire for more than 10 consecutive seconds. It seems that Russell and Churchill were more interested in capturing the look, the sound, and the politics of the era than they were in bringing it to life theatrically. The inclusion of so many identifying features of 1929, from a Jolson-style blackface specialty to police raids for not just alcohol but also mixed-race dancing onstage to even Mae’s presence, doesn’t so much immerse you in the time as ham-handedly point at it. That the songs - sometimes torchy, sometimes steamy, sometimes vaudevillian, but always evanescently pleasant - recall a raft of period styles without providing much originality of their own, also doesn’t help.
If Russell and Churchill are looking for a model, they could examine Michael John LaChiusa’s version of The Wild Party, which is set around the same time and treats roughly the same subject, if from a very different perspective. In that show, LaChiusa melded the sounds of the late 1920s with his own distinct musical aesthetic, creating a score that sounded as fresh as it did familiar. When Russell and Churchill similarly learn that way they bring to their examination of pre-Depression black entertainment is every bit as important as what it did for America, chances are they’ll find a way to grant Scandalous People the scorch its subtitle promises. Right now, however, it’s too chilly to cause anyone but the hard-working dancers to even break a sweat.