Toronto
4 min

Steal that extra bow

Rekindled love of musicals stirs Fringe fest

THE BUTLER DIDDLED IT. Lisa Lambert (middle) is surrounded by musical-lovin' funsters (clockwise) Scott Anderson, Nick Johne, John Mitchell, Bob Martin and Jen Whalen, of The Drowsy Chaperone. Credit: Xtra files

Time was, the quintessential Fringe fest show was a stripped down to the bones affair – a single actor (who also wrote, directed, produced, designed and lit the show) in a gray sweatshirt sitting on a milk grate, doing an hour-long monologue about despair and alienation.



My, how things have changed.



This year, a number of theatre upstarts are playing Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and putting on a show – musicals, no less, with large casts, full costumes and wigs, lavish sets, live music and choreography.



On the heels of their fabulous production of Honest Ed: The Musical at the Poor Alex last winter, Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison and their musical theatre and sketch comedy pals are presenting The Drowsy Chaperone, what Lambert calls “an affectionate parody of 1930s musicals, those shows that always take place at an upper-class party with a mysterious stranger and several cases of mistaken identity.”



For Lambert and co, these musical theatre endeavours are sheer labours of love. The Drowsy Chaperone originated as a wedding present for two friends – Janet Van De Graaff and Bob Martin – who are now in the Fringe production, with Van De Graaff playing a bride-to-be, named, what else, Janet Van De Graaff. And Martin plays a twisted narrator who’s obsessed with a musical entitled, what else, The Drowsy Chaperone.



(Don’t worry, says Lambert, “it really does all make sense.”)



“I like the party atmosphere and the playful aspect of these kind of shows,” says Lambert, who cites the film Love Me Tonight as one her influences. “It’s so sophisticated and sharp. I’d love to draw more people to musicals like this and see them revived.”



What’s also attractive to performers and writers are the possibilities in the musical form. “You can have an emotional burst in a song, that you simply couldn’t have in a spoken line,” says Lambert. “With singing and dancing you can be over-the-top, without being corny.”



The Drowsy Chaperone opens at the George Ignatieff Theatre (15 Devonshire Pl) at 9pm on Fri, Jul 2.



“A musical allows you to play with a palette of heightened emotions,” adds Jonathan Marshall Freeman, the composer, author and director of The View From Zero. “And it’s not just the kind of thing we see on Broadway, or with the mega musical. You can go back to Brecht, who was able to explore serious themes with music and singing.”



Freeman attributes the number of musicals at the Fringe to the amazing pool of musical theatre talent in Toronto that’s been built up lately “There’s now a number of people in this city who have the chops to sing, act and dance-and the desire to do something outside of the mainstream.”



With an electronica score, The View From Zero is a dystopic musical about greed and redemption set amidst towering bank buildings. The story centres on three characters surrounding a billionaire – his mistress, his bodyguard and a busker – “who use each other and ultimately set each other free,” says author/composer/director Freeman. Playing at the Tarragon from 10pm, Jul 1.





Some of the other musical offerings at the Fringe include:



One of the totally gay-themed shows at the Fringe, Involuntary Contraction ends with the rousing song “Electric Chair,” which writer/director Sam Hancock assures me is “really funny and uplifting.”



A satirical send-up of stereotypes – like a man going for his gay license test – Hancock premiered the show at the Rhubarb Festival in 1997. “I like the idea of playing with what people think being gay is about,” Hancock says, “and then messing with them by giving them a really jarring twist.” Opens at 3pm on Fri, Jul 2 at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse (79A St George St).



In The Fabulous Smokey Topaz Multimedia Extravaganza, Jane Luk parlays her childhood obsessions with Carol Burnett, Sonny and Cher and Merv Griffin into a live variety talk show, complete with dancers, music and commercial breaks and featuring an eclectic collection of “guests”: artists from other Fringe productions, a wildlife expert and even a double Dutch team.



“I’m Asian and I created a role for myself that no one ever envisions me doing – a blonde, lounge lizardess,” says Luk, who plays Smokey. With Tricia Williams, Kerry Griffin, Jean Yoon, Paul Lee and Sandy Jobin-Bevans, Extravaganza plays at the Tarragon Mainspace (30 Bridgman Ave) starting at 8pm on Thu, Jul 1.



A re-telling of a Grimm’s fairy tale that involves an evil step-mommy, child murder and cannibalism (and in that order), it doesn’t get much darker than Maristella Roca’s The Juniper Tree. Featuring a dazzlingly accomplished cast (including Steve Cumyn, Greg MacArthur and Liza Balkan) and production team (directed by Josephine Le Grice, music by Allen Cole), production manager Edward Nixon says the play “is a black comedy that explores the sexual tensions in blended families, seen from a child’s perspective.” The Juniper Tree premieres at 4:30pm on Fri, Jul 2 at the Tarragon Extra Space.



The B-Girlz have landed! In their first hour-long show and the latest installment in the on-going drama of Barbie-Q, Conchita and Hard Kora, the drag trio present Planet B, “a space age musical with singing, dancing and anal probes,” says Barbie-Q. Note to viewers: Planet B is a last-minute replacement for the show Swiss Army Wife at the Tarragon-check the program for times and dates.



Millennium Madness Sale is pure social satire about an Ontario politician auctioning off untouchables that the province no longer wants: single mothers, teachers, nurses, squeegee kids. Director Barbara LaRose says it’s a little like A Christmas Carol and “inspired by Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel.” It includes the number, “Come Back Tomorrow If Your Heart Attack Can Wait.” Bring a donation for the Daily Bread Food Bank and get a buck off the ticket price. Opens at 10:30pm on Jul 2 at the George Ignatieff.





The Fringe festival runs until July 11 at eight venues in and around the Annex. For complete show times and company information spring for the official Fringe program, at $2 it’s well worth it. Tickets cost $10 in advance, $8 at the door. Passes available, call (416) 862-2222.