Fringe report: URBAN MOMFARE and SMASHED, THE CARRIE NATION STORY

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While Broadway hangs fire during the summer, New York’s energetic festival season finds composers, lyricists and performers hard at work on new projects. Two ambitious entries in the New York International Fringe Festival take original approaches to the traditions of musical theater and opera.

Seamlessly blending razor-sharp satire with heartfelt reflections on the joys and conflicts of family life, URBAN MOMFARE tracks 17 years in the life of a modern mom. When we first meet Kate (Christiana Little) she is pregnant and unprepared for the culture shock that awaits her. Her husband hails from New York’s Upper East Side, and when he takes over his family’s business, the couple leaves laid back Pittsburgh for the fervid pace of Manhattan. At first, Kate feels like Alice in an intimidating Wonderland of parental perfection: Momzillas flash designer accessories while ruthlessly angling to get their genius infants into exclusive preschools. Hot Superdads negotiate million dollar deals and hit the gym every day, while still finding time to coach soccer and help with homework. Surrounded by all this flawlessness, Kate worries that she and her husband and young daughter Charlotte (Sarah Rosenthal) can’t possibly measure up. As she quickly learns, survival in this combat zone depends on finding allies, and luckily Kate is able bond with Ellen (Tiffan Borelli) and Debbie (Christine Toy Johnson). Together they are able to navigate even the most devastating of crises. That is, until Kate’s penchant for speaking the unvarnished truth sets off a chain reaction that threatens to tear the trio apart. Will friendship triumph over vanity? Fittingly, the parents must look to their children to find the answer.

Perfectly cast as the three mom-sketeers, Little, Borelli and Johnson pack powerful voices and nail the comic and poignant beats with equal precision. They are aided by versatile supporting cast (Antonietta Corvinelli, Sandi DeGeorge and Cheryl Howard) who nimbly morph into nannies, fitness gurus, talk show hosts, and a panoply of other personages. Director Alice Jenkell and choreographer Janine Molinari keep the myriad cues, time lapses and costume changes flowing smoothly.

Pamela Weiler Grayson’s music and ferociously clever lyrics blend heart with hilarity and give the characters depth and vibrancy. The score works organically with Grayson and Jenkell’s well-crafted libretto, to move the story forward. Urban dwellers will appreciate the show’s sagacious ribbing of the trend-crazed elite. But Grayson and company also have a lot to say about body image, self-worth, and a search for lasting values that can’t be bought on Madison Avenue. If there is any justice, URBAN MOMFARE will soon move on to a longer run in a major venue. See it now while the tickets are still affordable.

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Weighing in at a lean 70 minutes, SMASHED. THE CARRIE NATION STORY certainly never gets boring. If anything, its merry-go-round of ideas sometimes moves too briskly for its own good.

Nation (Krista Wozniak) sees the abuse of alcohol as an epidemic threatening the health of the American people. Rather than wait for due process, she follows the dictates of God (David Schmidt) and takes the law into her own hands. With violent determination, she sets about invading saloons and destroying their merchandise with a hatchet (hence the double entendre “smashed”). As her reputation grows, Carrie makes headlines, gets arrested and gathers a loyal band of followers (Cameron Russell, Christiana Little and Jocelyn O’Toole). America keeps on drinking regardless, as evidenced by the chronic inebriation of the Liquid Courage Brigade (Patricia Vital, Evan McCormack, and Seth Gilman). Even Carrie herself, in a surreal dream sequence, binges on adult beverages.

The production has an energetic, three-ring-circus quality and director Jenny Lee Mitchell makes inventive use of the C.O.W. theater’s raked seats and deep stage. The cast, backed, up by a three piece house band, are all strong singers and seem to having a good time with material. But Composer-lyricist James Barry and librettist Timothy Braun seem uncertain as to what story they want to tell. The Arias, though well-written, are truncated, and the vignettes that make up the plot are somewhat random in design. Self-referential theater jokes alternate with lampoons of contemporary dive bar culture, and a smattering of real biographical detail. At times, the songs are affecting and lucid, as when Carrie recalls her first marriage to an alcoholic husband. The driving force behind her activism is suddenly made clear and she becomes a human being rather than a just quaint relic of a bygone America. More character-driven work of this kind would give SMASHED the narrative musculature it needs and help weave its many intriguing elements into a cohesive whole.

The New York International Fringe continues at multiple venues through August 24th. Tickets and show times: http://www.fringenyc.org. Info@fringenyc.og.

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