Off Broadway Reviews
Kiss and Make Up
The Rat King Rock Opera
Bye, Bye Big Guy
The story of what eventually happened to that little man that could spin straw into gold is not, in itself, 24-carat comedy. But writers Michael Slade, David Evans, and Faye Greenberg, and their cast, find an unexpected amount of humor in the late Rumpelstiltskin and his fairy-tale friends by spoofing them all in the oddly winning (and flat-out odd) Fringe Festival musical Bye, Bye Big Guy, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Envisioning the memorial service of the talented but tempestuous gnome, the show is a spiraling cavalcade of specialty acts drawn from sources ranging from the Brothers Grimm to Hans Christian Andersen. Oh, there's some silliness about everyone's vying for Rumpelstiltskin's fortune by trying to guess the most important person in his life, but the show is much more concerned with being a corrupted, vaudevillian take-off on the Into the Woods formula.
Rapunzel, in full Sinead O'Connor mode, appears bald to screech about how shearing her locks set her free. The bickering dance team of Goldilocks and Baby Bear (Carly Jibson and Michael Gerrard) show up to perform their act. A trio of wolves (Gerrard, Orville Mendoza, and Christopher Youngsman) sidle on to howl a Rat Pack-inspired medley about lupine carnal pleasures. If that's not enough, several of Rumpelstiltskin's brothers are on hand, and they all seem to have flown in directly from the Borscht Belt.
At just over 90 minutes, the show is far too long to sustain its single-joke premise, and roughly half of the "acts" that fill up that time are not particularly funny. There's plenty of spirited direction and choreography from Devanand Janki and delightfully droll costumes from Karen Ann Ledger, but the score by Greenberg (lyrics) and Evans (music) too seldom rises above its general cleverness to become magical.
Nonetheless, the terrific cast mostly behaves as though it's in the Broadway hit of the season. Youngsman is a bit stiff as the transformed Frog Prince and co-emcee (with Snow White, played by Danielle Lee Greaves), but the actors are otherwise percussive blasts of comic energy. Most impressive are Jill Abramovitz as Rumpelstiltskin's scorned lover, and Jibson, who faithfully captures the essential hamminess of the enterprise whether she's bounding about the stage in cursed red shoes or embodying a hopelessly grumpy Gretel (whose Hansel is strangely two-dimensional).
One senses that the authors had loftier goals in mind, that their "musical memorial spoof" was intended as a trenchant comment on the corrosive nature of celebrity. That never comes through in Bye, Bye Big Guy. What does is a stronger appreciation for the art of the musical actor to create hilarious order from scripted chaos, and escort you into a living storybook even when the script and score can't do it on their own.
Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Kiss and Make Up
The dirty little secret about farce is that it only looks easy. Creating compelling characters with so much at stake that traditional notions of reason evaporate is difficult; fashioning a story around that ridiculousness to showcase and amplify those concerns is harder still. Making it all believable and funny? A Herculean effort. That's why truly excellent examples are both vivid and few and far between.
In writing their dullish new musical Kiss and Make Up, Kevin Hammonds and Mark Weiser seem to have been most influenced by two theatrical farces: Michael Frayn's Noises Off and Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor. Each of those shows finds in live theatre some crucial metaphor for existence that so sparks its characters that life for them becomes worth living - or destroying - onstage, with riotous results. Kiss and Make Up, however, wants to reap dividends without that initial investment.
Its story is mostly nonsense, detailing the Fleur Community Players in Massachusetts opening their Victorian-era French farce musical (which is far-fetched enough) Fingers Crossed with the President of the United States in the audience. The company's constantly suffering impresario (David Sabella-Mills) must contend with an envious co-star (Stanton Garr), a leading lady (Capathia Jenkins) with a tendency for altering the score and suffering fits of nerves, a serial-lying supporting actress (Patti Perkins), the clueless and hopeless last-minute ingénue (Jeanne Tinker), and the backstage assistant (Stephanie D'Abruzzo) he loves and needs to help him save the show.
Why this smart woman distrusts his motives based on sketchy evidence, why the Secret Service agent (Robert Rokicki) running around simply must be a stagestruck clod, and what the heck is happening in Fingers Crossed are issues left unexplained. Librettist-lyricist-director Hammonds and composer-lyricist Weiser seem to think that once the show-within-the-show gets underway, replete with multiple cases of mistaken identity and Sabella-Mills parading about in a dress, the entertainment will take care of itself.
It doesn't. There are some laughs - from the absurd revelations that Perkins must spout with rock-solid sincerity, and the late-show bodice-twisting tangles that overwhelm you with their sheer numbers - but it's all too facile and too fabricated to legitimately bust your gut. The rampantly unimaginative score comes alive only in a sharp-edged, haunting duet for Sabella-Mills and D'Abruzzo called "If Anyone Had Told Me," which re-envisions repressed love for the 21st century. That song and its singers' temporarily unaffected performances are the least labored things about this musical that overall needs to work smarter, not harder, to bring down the house.
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission
The Rat King Rock Opera
You've undoubtedly heard that the cockroach is one of the few creatures likely to survive a total nuclear holocaust? Well, rats might give them a run for their money, at least if they're the ones in The Rat King Rock Opera. This ungainly, Toronto-born musical by Maggie MacDonald (book and lyrics) and Bob Wiseman and Laura Barrett (music) at the Fringe Festival is stuffed with annoying creatures sniveling, scampering, and chomping their way right through your nerves. The problem is, just as many are humans.
That's assuming "human" is the proper term for the self-absorbed grotesques populating what's left of the atom-bomb leveled world in MacDonald's story, and that's never exactly clear. Nor is much else: The king of the title is apparently one of the few remaining humans, his daughter Carlyn the best hope for reseeding humanity, and Bertolt Brecht their personal house deity. The songs, most of which are sung painfully out of tune and bear as much resemblance to rock music as a slab of marble does, seem to have been inspired by either The Threepenny Opera or Grand Guignol, but with less overt entertainment value.
The evening starts off promisingly, with a lengthy shadow-puppet show explaining the convoluted history of the King, Carlyn, and the three-armed young man who will eventually steal her heart. As soon as it's finished, though, the show piles on the pretentiousness, especially with its use of creaky, poetic writing and rhyming couplets that augur a kind of occasion nothing else in the show justifies. MacDonald's ideas occasionally shine through, with references to Edward Teller and J. Robert Oppenheimer that suggest a more serious, even political intent than ever appears onstage. As a lyric advises, "the gap between thinking and doing is gaping and growing"; judging by what's already onstage, we're looking at a Grand Canyon-sized rift in The Rat King Rock Opera.
Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission