Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Edinburgh, U.K., August 7-31, 2015
Reviewed by Mychelle Colleary for Cabaret Scenes
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is one of those things better experienced rather than described. Against the backdrop of an ancient, soot-stained, stoic, Escher-esque multi-tiered city of stairs, the Festival has become a live performance holy land where the devout go on pilgrimage to worship and experience the artistic baptism of fire that is (or can be) equal parts effervescent, encouraging, and demoralizing.
This altar of performance includes the sublime, the crazy, the manic, works-in-progress side by side with exquisite refinement, as well as self-indulgent vanity projects. The Festival Fringe is a place of experiment (anyone can participate), a place to busk your finest talents, possibly career-making, inevitably educational—the glory land for people who would rather live through participation than chew on pre-packaged programming offered by more mainstream media and tidy commercial enterprises. This experience isn’t limited to the performers, but also includes audience members, promoters, press, any and all the throngs of support people.
There were 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows in 313 venues across Edinburgh. A final tally has yet to be released, but on the last day, with still hundreds of performance left to take place, Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society announced that an estimated 2,298,090 tickets had been issued for this year.
To say I’d never seen anything like it would be a trivial understatement.
So many hopeful creatives vying for attention! It was equal parts life-affirming and soul-crushingly daunting. Festival area streets are lined with a gauntlet of entertainers flyering for shows, some of those flyers stapled with pieces of paper indicating recent 4 and 5-star reviews. Every inch of available space throughout the city has a poster or banner advertising a show. Near the box offices for each venue are marquees which list the multiple shows slotted hourly from morning until after midnight, a chalk board listing that day’s “Sold Out” shows, huge plastered walls of reviews, and still more posters.
It is a formidable challenge to sift through the noise. Comedy has the largest presence, near 35%, followed closely by theatrical productions at approx 30% of the genre share. The remaining third of the shows include cabaret, musicals, opera, dance, physical theater, spoken word, exhibitions, music (primarily instrumental), and other events.
Thankfully, I had the very specific focus of only seeking shows that included songs, further narrowed by the limited amount of time I was able to attend (4 days). Still, there were about 250 shows from which to choose. I distilled a list of 20 shows that looked interesting/promising, with the aim of attending at least ten shows from that list.
My official press accreditation came through only a few hours before my flight to Edinburgh departed, and I subsequently received a 126 page-Excel document with press contact details for each and every show. I furiously emailed and texted regarding shows I hoped to attend, but with limited time, and limited access to email, I ended up seeing only one show on my list. My game plan had to quickly change. Thanks to suggestions from experienced attendees and individual venue press offices, I did still manage to see the following 10 shows:
Bette Midler… and Me: my very first-ever Fringe show. In retrospect, a microcosm of the festival itself, that included a zany bunch of elements toggled together under a theme. In one of the larger, more prestigious (multi-room) venues, the Glided Balloon, Sue Kelvin shares her idolic affinity for Bette Midler via personal stories that demonstrate how Mildler’s tenacious individual career inspired and encouraged Kelvin both creatively and personally (self-acceptance and tragic loss). It is a slick piece that incorporates the talents of Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning Musical Director Sarah Travis and singer/actress/flutist “Stephen Sondheim Performer of the Year Award-winning Alex Young in not so much supporting roles, but as equally-weighted parts of a performance trinity. Tight three-part harmony, solid acting, campy Avenue Q-style puppeteering, and a bit of choreography were all part of this one-hour hootenanny. The show’s writer, Chris Burgess, director Paul Foster, choreographer Matthew Cole, all have very respectable resumes, as does the production company Aria Entertainment. They’re quite the professional crew, and it showed, but without losing its giddy edge. It was the perfect benchmark to begin my Fringe experience.
We Are Such Stuff…: a new musical performed by The Voice Squad (youth choir). I went into this show blindly on a suggestion. The cast looked young and I thought they were likely a college theater troupe that had spent an entire year learning this massive piece of beautifully textured music. As it turns out, the age range was 12 -19 years old and they had learned the music/staging/choreography in just two months. Their Musical Director/pianist (oh, and composer of the piece) Brigitta Kenyon said she didn’t tell the performers it would be difficult, so they didn’t perceive a challenge and “just got on with learning it.” The music and performances were lovely. The show concept itself, set within a professional events management company, was quite dark. Focusing on the not-so-nice aspects of human nature, the ending isn’t happy and doesn’t really offer a tidy resolution. There are no winners, there is just moving on from a mess. I’m sure this left some audience members confused, but I rather liked the unfair, unapologetic conclusion, sung by basically kids. Oddly adult, surprisingly professional, a completely unexpected treat.
Le Haggis: My least favorite show. I felt truly misled by its 5-star review. Touted as a sexy cabaret and circus show set to contemporary Scottish pop-folk music, I was disappointed by this mish-mash of Scottish-y things that basically seemed thrown together with no discernible narrative. Scantily clad acrobats that used poles, ribbons and rings to showcase their strength and grace, interspersed with the host’s scratchy- voiced singing and (at one point) pants-free guitar playing. He reminded me of Meatloaf, and I wondered if that had anything to do with the show’s name. The smoke machine made breathing a bit difficult, so having the evening end with an audience sing-along of “Auld Lang Syne” and “Loch Lomond” seemed obnoxious. Trite. Beers in hand, the audience singing and stomping on the temporary wooden-risers seating of the Assembly spiegeltent, I wondered if the late night news was going to report the tragic deaths of Fringe-goers as a result of a tent venue collapsing…. not fun in my opinion. However, there were clearly a lot of people enjoying themselves (in a kilts-only, piano bar kind of way, minus the piano; add a squeeze box), I just wasn’t one of them.
America’s Next Top Bachelor Housewife Celebrity Hoarder Makeover Star Gone Wild!: I decided to see The Kinsey Sicks after seeing them flyer – in full, stunning drag, singing a cappella four-part harmony perfectly. Hailing from San Francisco, billing themselves an as “America’s Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet,” it was their first time at the Fringe. They looked amazing and sounded even better! I wasn’t as keen on the actual show. It was a bit convoluted as a concept and some of the self-deprecating humor had the audience laughing at them rather than with them (which may have been intentional in an unknown — so possibly homophobic — environment). That said, their musical talent and drag personas win out. Didn’t like the show per se, but absolutely loved them.
Sweet Dream–Songs by Annie Lennox: Australian Michael Griffiths played piano and sang as Annie Lennox, using her own songs’ lyrics to chronologically map her personal narrative. A different approach and interesting arrangements, but it’s pretty difficult to improve upon Annie Lennox’s music or her personal candor. This format likely worked really well with his previous subject, Madonna, adding quality and intimacy to a shallow pop diva’s story. Griffiths has nice voice, good piano-playing skill, but the show just didn’t quite hit the mark enough to be fully engaging.
Puddles’ Pity Party: The clear winner! An utterly enthralling 6’ 8” white-face pantomiming clown (Michael Geier as Puddles), whose focused interactions with the crowd tell the story of his unrequited love for Kevin Costner… no speaking at all, but powerful singing reminiscent of Tom Jones. He completely aces Sia’s “Chandelier” – it sounds ridiculous, and it is! And that’s what makes it so fun and utterly fabulous
Geek to Goddess: This was jazz vocalist and 1950s blonde bombshell Ronnie Scott’s regular Kia Hoffman’s first foray into the genre of cabaret, the story of her transition from frumpy math geek to Monroe-styled jazz diva. The night I attended was every performer’s worst nightmare. Great (and packed) show the night before, but this evening playing to an almost empty house replete with a heckling drunken Scotsman, the previous act talking very loudly at the bar, and a woman at the front table fast asleep – so of course, that’s when a critic shows up. With all of that going on, a less experienced performer might have faltered. Ms. Hoffman did not. Though the show could really use a director to edit patter, tidy up transitions and fix some awkward instances of audience participation, the vocal and musical talent of Kai Hoffman is undeniable. She wrote all of the music for her debut cabaret show, which included the title track to her recent CD release Luckiest Girl Alive. As such, the material rested in her vocal sweet spot and would be worth a listen in concert irrespective of any narrative. Aptly accompanied by Huw Rees, this was a more than a respectable first cabaret effort. I look forward to seeing what she does next.
Cautionary Tales for Daughters: This well-crafted little gem rests somewhere between a musical theater piece and a cabaret show. Composer, performer and mother of a nine-year-old girl, Tanya Holt [not to be confused with the same-named award-winning singer NYC cabaret-goers know], along with Musical Director/keyboard/oboe player Suzie Shrubb, sing, strut, chat, humorously cajole and harmonize their way through a litany of motherly advice. Presented as based on personal experience, topics are not for the faint of heart (or audiences under 16 years old) and include eating disorders, sexual harassment (hinting at rape), domestic violence and tattoos. With the aid of animated video, props and costume accessories, this compelling piece inserts just enough humor to make these tough topics palatable. Smart and entertaining, it made getting up (after a very late night) for this 10:15 am show entirely worth the effort.
Okinawa Sansan: I found this show by happy accident. I wandered by the venue just before show time and decided to take a chance. Ship of the Ryukyu (Japanese dance and music troupe) presented a story of love, life and marriage told though music and classical Ryukyu Court dance. It was dazzling. Performers wore brightly colored traditional bingata-patterned costumes form the tropical Okinawa Islands and were accompanied by sanshin, violin, percussion and traditional vocals. Though the costumes and instruments hinted at more historical forms, the arrangements were definitely modern and driving. The sheer joy reflected on the dancers’ faces was infectious. It was exquisite and elegantly fun.
Aiden Strangeman – Horsey: Billed as a musical comedy show, this autobiographical tale of teenage sexual angst to fatherhood includes a chronological through-line that adds an aspect of cohesive storytelling not normally found in stand-up comedy. There is an earnest honesty to Aiden Strangeman’s self-deprecating delivery that is in equal parts both hilarious and charming. You find yourself laughing with him, not at him, about things that were/are likely emotionally or physically painful situations. We followed him, laughing at the ridiculous things that make up his unique collection of totally human tribulations. We all have them; he chooses to find the humorous angle of the experiences life has thrown him, casually side-stepping the instinctual pity party that would normally be associated with adversity. The songs serve to move the narrative along and have a folk rock/indie feel to them. He plays acoustic guitar well and sings well. However, aside from “Heart of a Lady” (about himself), I’m not sure any of the songs could stand on their own outside of this setting. I suppose they don’t need to, but I wondered if the songs and the comic patter in between songs could both stand on their own individually, how much more powerful this work could be. That said, I’m a tough crowd and don’t normally laugh out loud. I did in this instance, even as part of a very tiny audience. We’ll definitely be seeing more of this talented, endearing guy.