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Thursday, May 20, 2021

Orlando Fringe Festival 2021 reviews: ‘The 500 List,’ ‘Darths and Droids,’ ‘Seeger,’ ‘The Impossible Club’ and ‘What? The Dickens!’

Posted By on Thu, May 20, 2021 at 1:59 PM

click to enlarge Ryan Adam Wells in The 500 List - PHOTO COURTESY ORLANDO FRINGE
  • photo courtesy Orlando Fringe
  • Ryan Adam Wells in The 500 List
The 500 List
Pink Venue, $12

Modern American troubadour Ryan Adam Wells makes a welcome return to the Orlando Fringe with a “sidequel” that runs parallel to — and is even more moving than — his previous award-winning solo show, Beers About Songs. The 500 List follows Wells and his college buddy Dave on a Rolling Stone magazine-inspired cross-country road trip, which served as the catalyst for his escape from an abusive relationship.

Wells structures his narrative around an EP’s worth of his bluesy country-fried rock songs, which both serve up catchy hooks and serve as musical underscores for Wells’ melodious monologues. His fluent marriage of memorable tunes and wry humor brings to mind the classic story-songs of Arlo Guthrie, like "Alice’s Restaurant" and "Motorcycle," only with aggressive ostriches. What appears at first glance to be a picaresque play about romantic misadventures ends up as an emotionally involving tribute to the power of friendship. Wells’ final song begs listeners to “keep your eyes open to the love all around your life”; look around the theater as his moist-eyed audiences exit, and you’re sure to see love in abundance.

click to enlarge Darths and Droids - IMAGE COURTESY ORLANDO FRINGE
  • image courtesy Orlando Fringe
  • Darths and Droids
Darths and Droids
Yellow Venue, $10

Darths & Droids, which was adapted by Justin Hughes from David Morgan-Mar and the Comic Irregulars’ online comic, reimagines Star Wars not as a multi-billion-dollar cinematic franchise, but as a half-baked Dungeon & Dragons-style role-playing campaign. Ryan Leyhue plays the cloak-clad dungeon master, leading his rec room-dwelling buddies (Hughes, Sebastian Gonzalez, Kristen Lichtenthal, Sam Waters, Jessica Young) on an increasingly ludicrous quest pitting plasma sword-swinging space monks against offensively accented aliens, blaster-firing robots, and a Sith Lord who sounds like Joe “Tiger King” Exotic. The quirky concept gives the high-energy performers license to lampoon the more absurd elements of Lucasfilm’s saga and poke fun at hardcore RPG players, while still squeezing in a hint of character development and even some romance.

The target audience for Darths and Droids is the Venn diagram intersection of people who love Star Wars (check); people who have played D&D (check); and people interested in a scene-by-scene re-creation of Episode I: The Phantom Menace (check, please). Normally, I’d say two out of three ain’t bad, but I’m baffled by their decision to spend an hour rehashing George Lucas’ second-worst film, only with obsessively detailed dice-rolling mechanics.

If they’d started with A New Hope — or even the Holiday Special — I’d probably be lining up for a second viewing right now. However, not even this hard-working crew can make midi-chlorians work, and they’re threatening an attack of the clones next year, which is sure to be more irritating than desert sand. No show featuring Jar Jar Binks can be considered a natural 20, but ultimately Darths and Droids makes its saving throw thanks to a charismatic cast.

click to enlarge The Impossible Club - IMAGE COURTESY ORLANDO FRINGE
  • image courtesy Orlando Fringe
  • The Impossible Club
The Impossible Club
Green Venue, $12

The Impossible Club, the newest show from writer-composer Ned Wilkinson and producer Christopher Leavy, is a well-intentioned, well-crafted musical about middle school bullying that ultimately left me wanting more. When their school institutes a zero-tolerance policy, four feuding fifth- and sixth-graders (Tiffany Bishop, Jacob Coldiron, Kayla Fischl, Javier Collazo Lopez) must choose between mutually assured destruction or becoming frenemies.
Wilkinson’s peppy pastiche score includes some hummable earworms, and the cast hits their harmonies despite singing through clear face masks (which I consider as useful as fig leaves from a fluid dynamics perspective).

However, Kenny Howard’s direction emphasizes the campier elements in Wilkinson’s slim script, which engages with a serious subject on a largely surface level. Except for a brief excursion into Breakfast Club-style self-discovery, the overall tone places everything in ironic air quotes, and it doesn’t help the audience’s ability to buy into the characters’ authenticity when most of the actors look Ben Platt’s age.

The Impossible Club would be ideal material for a tour of public school cafetoriums, but despite the undeniable heart that went into its creation, I fear it’s going to get shoved in a locker by the bigger, stronger shows at Fringe.

click to enlarge Randy Noojin as Pete Seeger - PHOTO COURTESY ORLANDO FRINGE
  • photo courtesy Orlando Fringe
  • Randy Noojin as Pete Seeger
Gold Venue, $12
Today’s teens may scoff at the notion that a song could change the world, but popular music was the social media of the 1960s, and if memes can now help pick the President, part of the credit (or blame) must go to pioneering folk singer Pete Seeger. As a kid, I listened to the complete recording of his historic 1963 Carnegie Hall concert on constant repeat, so attending Randy Noojin’s eerily accurate recreation the late artist-activist was like reuniting with an old friend.

Even if you didn’t grow up singing summer camp standards like “If I Had a Hammer, “Turn Turn Turn” or “Goodnight Irene,” Noojin’s performance — which is illustrated with a Ken Burns-style slideshow of historical photos — will grab you with fascinating factoids from the formative years of the Civil Rights movement. I never knew before that Seeger taught “We Shall Overcome” to Martin Luther King Jr., who incorporated its lyrics into his sermons, or that beloved balladeer Burl Ives exposed fellow Communists to Joe McCarthy’s HUAC hearings.

Noojin not only captures Seeger’s distinctive singing voice and fluent banjo playing (which becomes the subject of self-deprecating running jokes) but also his warm, optimistic personality. Audience participation was a sort of religion for Seeger, and Noojin’s enthusiastic exhortations to sing out loud might make some masked audience members a little uncomfortable. But I’m willing to bet that by the time he concludes with the iconic Cuban protest song “Guantanamera,” Noojin will have won over a number of newly minted Pete Seeger fans in his audience.

click to enlarge What? The Dickens! - PHOTO VIA WHAT THE DICKENS ON FACEBOOK
  • photo via What the Dickens on Facebook
  • What? The Dickens!
What? The Dickens!
Yellow Venue, $10

Everyone knows the name Scrooge is synonymous with miserliness, but what if good old Eb’nezer (the second E is silent) was merely the victim of a vengeful Chuckles Dickens, still bitter over a bad book review? In What? The Dickens! writer Patrick Prainito reimagines and expands upon a key conversation from the classic Christmas Carol, giving Scrooge (Bill Keevan) a chance to tell his side of the story to an increasingly muddled Jacob Marley (Tracy Perry).

It turns out that “bah humbug” is really a blessing, Belle was a gold-digger, and even innocent Tiny Tim was actually a 28-year-old con artist. It’s up to the audience to decide whether Scrooge has really been unfairly slandered, or if he’s simply engaged in an epic act of gaslighting in this loopily literate curiosity.

The densely layered references — not only to other Dickens novels like Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, but also Chippendale furniture and Rocky Horror — might be a little too clever for the show’s own good, and slow cue pickups on opening night occasionally interrupted the flow. However, if you happen to be a pedantic English major with a penchant for Monty Python-esque parody, What? The Dickens! will be right up your Whitechapel alley.

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