Sing it don’t say it: musical theatre at the Fringe

Crescendo! Chorus Productions and Plain Jane Theatre at Edmonton Fringe 2019

By Liz Nicholls,

Take a quick flip through the Fringe program, a tome of epic weight and proportions, and you’ll notice there’s nothing run of DeMille about the musicals at this year’s edition of our big alternative summer theatre extravaganza. No Rodgers and Hammerstein. No low-budget chamber-scale Brigadoon or Little Shop of Horrors or The Full Monty. OK, there’s Cats, but ThunderCATS is billed as a parody,, with “even less plot and tighter leotards.”

When it goes to the Fringe, the musical theatre seems to take on new and intriguing angles and shapes, tackle unexpected subjects from unexpected sources, put songs in the mouths of characters you might never imagine singing. As in opera (and, hey, there is one, Gianni Schicchi), happy endings occasionally happen, but they aren’t de rigueur.

Triassic Parq, at Edmonton Fringe 2019. Photo supplied.

There’s an original musical inspired by the lives and loves of servers in the restaurant biz: MEAT The Musical. There’s Straight Edge Theatre’s dark new musical about “child neglect and premeditated murder,” Imaginary Friend. Triassic Parq, born at the New York Fringe in 2010 before it arrived Off-Broadway, revisits the famous movie through the eyes of the dinosaurs. Trummp The Musical, an original by a two-writer team from St. John’s Nfld., stars two White House interns.

The Legend of White Woman Creek, a returning production from Brooklyn’s The Coldharts (Edgar Allan)  does its storytelling in a song cycle delivered by a ghost. The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s influential game-changer, at the Fringe in a Straight Edge production, chronicles the rise and fall of a relationship both forward and in reverse.  

The Killing Jar The Musical, Scona Alumni Theatre Co. at Edmonton Fringe 2019

The Scona Alumni Theatre Co., specialists in musical theatre (Xanadu, Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Heathers: The Musical) premieres an original new musical this Fringe. The Killing Jar, an electro musical created by, and starring Chris Scott, one of the company, unspools from a mass killing in an exclusive club run by a philanthropist/activist. It’s target: celebrity worship. The production is directed and choreographed by Scona High’s musical theatre guru Linette Smith.    

“I’ve been so inspired by new work,” says Kate Ryan, artistic director of Plain Jane Theatre, an indie company with a bent for (and a distinguished archive in) discovering oddball, obscure, neglected, or mistreated gems of the repertoire. “The form of musical theatre has been changing the last couple of years…. What’s relevant? What do we celebrate?” The answers have evolved.

This past season, for example, the Janes mounted a multi-Sterling Award-winning production of Fun Home, a provocative contemporary coming-of-age coming-out musical adapted from a graphic memoir. “I needed to re-think our next step,” says Ryan, who’s a bona fide expert in the development of the American musical theatre. “We’ve created  revues, of course,” like last summer’s Everything’s Coming Up Chickens, which fashioned an extraordinary assortment of songs from musicals you might never have heard of into an homage to the actor’s life.

But Ryan, who’s been inspired by workshops with Lin-Manuel Miranda in New York and Toronto’s Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) at the Banff Centre, was drawn to the new. “As a director it’s terrifying but exciting, discovering what can, and can’t work.” That’s why she’s pumped about directing Crescendo! by her old friend and theatre school classmate Sandy Paddick, a collaboration with Chorus Productions.

Two years ago Crescendo! wasn’t a musical — witness a staged reading at Script Salon in which Ryan was one of the readers. “It was a play with characters who are women in a community choir, the joy of singing, of sharing songs,” she says of a script which began with true stories culled from interviews with real women. “Music was the something that made people open up to each other…. Singing together for an hour made people share deeply private stories.”   

A play about people in a choir making music together….So, why not add music and make a musical? Ryan asked Paddick, herself a member of a community choir. Why not? They enlisted Jennifer McMillan, a musician, composer and long-time member of the Kokopelli choir, and she wrote three original songs — including the title Crescendo! — and gathered the rest from a repertoire that ranges from Mozart to Rockin Robin. In future editions of the piece, the proportion of original music will increase. Ryan calls Crescendo! “a play with music … the songs aren’t dramatically driving the story forward….”           

As they worked on the piece, Ryan, Paddick, and McMillan discovered that “the story is really about the choir director. She could have pursued a career in opera. But what makes her happy? What’s the difference between being a solo artist and working in an ensemble?”

In the course of Crescendo! we meet four characters, of different backgrounds and political views. For an hour and a half, singing in a choir, they really listen to each other…. I love the premise, the potential of the storytelling,” says Ryan. “What music does is bring us together from a place where we’re not really sociable….”

“I’m learning so much. It’s what I needed to do next!” Now, there’s a Fringe mantra. 

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