In just under three weeks the 2011 Philly Live Arts & Fringe Festival presented (literally) hundreds of productions in a wide range of both spaces and disciplines. It’s all over now until next year – and I tried to review as many performances as I could reasonably squeeze in. On Saturday, I was able to attended two events and – while the other shows I saw were excellent, these two qualify as the BEST of what I saw.
On Saturday there was an amazing performance of the play Souvenir presented at the Academy of Vocal Arts theatre in a huge brownstone building in the 1900 block of Spruce Street. This two character play was staged years ago at the Wilma and later at the Media Theater, though I missed both of these productions. The one that played for two performances only at the AVA has been playing for weeks at the Cortland Rep Theatre in New York State for the two weeks prior to coming to Philly. The play is a “fantasia” on the life of singer (????) Florence Foster Jenkins, who preceded “Mrs. Miller” (of Tonight Show fame) by 50 years as the “worst female singer in the world”. And like Mrs. M, FFJ recorded seven 78rpm records for the Victor Talking Machine Company and the public bought them! Though she sang off-key, Jenkins sang off-key consistently and she filled concert halls (including New York’s Town Hall) with curiosity seekers. Her story is told by her piano accompanist, Cosme McMoon (played perfectly by Bill Kincaid (who directed the production). Jenkins was played by soprano/actress April Woodall – who, ironically, was the Dean of Students at AVA earlier in her career. The stage in this performance space was a perfect setting for the play, which is filled with music. Those who are not fans of Opera should not be scared away, and neither should opera lovers who think they might find Woodall’s (as Jenkins) voice harsh. There are not a lot of airas – and these are short – but there is a lot of early Tin Pan Alley music played and sung (all the way through) by Kincaid. Irving Caesar’s tuneful “Crazy Rhythm” is just one of the six pop songs performed. It’s not easy for a trained singer like Woodall to sing off-key but she hits the mark (or rather “misses the mark” perfectly). An encore at the end proves that she really has a beautiful voice. This is a production that I hope the AVA will consider bringing back for a weeklong run. (I, for one, could see it again.) With all the conflicting Fringe events, this gem got lost in the shuffle and needs to reach more people.
Saturday night brought another winner – Traces, the show best described as Cirque du Soliel without costumes or mimes! But unlike Cirque – where aerialists, jugglers and tumblers each show off their talent and then disappear until the finale – this troupe (collectively known as 7 Fingers) comprises the full cast and EVERY ONE of the six men and one woman can perform every one of these disciplines! The 90 minute nonstop performance had the nearly full Merriam Theatre (it was co-presented by the Kimmel Center, which manages the Merriam) with jaws agape wondering, not only how the troupe had the energy, but how they could have performed the full show only three hours earlier (as a matinee)! Some – just some – of the words I jotted down during the show included: skateboards, basketballs, trampoline, poles, roller skates, metal hoop, and Chinese wooden rings. All of these props were use. Plus singing and playing a piano. The members of the troupe come from Canada, California, Sweden and China and all are 22-26 years old. Word of mouth spread quickly and nearly all of the five performances – over four day sold out! I think the demographics of the audience was the widest of any of the LA/Fringe shows. If Traces ever returns to Philly, don’t miss it!