JACK OF HEARTS, MASTER OF NONE
By Nelson Diaz Marcano 1.21.2017
It’s been almost two years since I was first introduced to Mind The Art Entertainment and the work of Christian De Gré with “Beware The Chupacabra!” at the Fringe Festival in 2015. I remember that show, because it was over two hours with no intermission and it didn’t matter. I was entertained, not impressed, but had a lot of fun. You have to appreciate when you are having a good time with an audience, all together, as a community. Two months later, “Fatty Fatty No Friends” was in production and, again, I was part of the audience. This time not only was I having a grand old time, but I was blown away by the powerful production. Last year, I had the honor to review a musical revue of De Gre’s work and witness his evolution on stage. What seemed to have started as a musical artist deeply inspired by gothic aesthetics and playful numbers was now growing to hit more personal themes, with a subdued style. On Thursday, his latest work “Jack of Hearts, Master of None” opened at the HERE Arts Center, putting on display his most intimate work and showing us a new side of himself.
While his shows have often explored themes that affect our society with larger than life characters and out of this world narrative, “Jack of Hearts, Master of None” keeps it simple while digging into a larger theme than any before. Love. Love and loneliness. Love and carelessness. Love and missed opportunities. Love, and the mistakes we make in the name of it. Jack, in all his glory, is a tragic character. One that we know so well, one that strikes an incredible resemblance to the most interesting people in the world. For Jack, the question of what is love if not a game is one he lives his life by. For Jack, looking for his perfect hand has kept him away from the real prize. And for Jack, the realization of his life comes a bit too late. And we are with him, through each and every beat, wincing since the first note. Engrossed. Hypnotized.
Playing Jack, is none other than Aaron Ramey (The Bridge of Madison County), who instills the nuances and the charm such a character needs for us to hook ourselves to them and feel their journey. Each song gets us closer to his true self, and the closer we get to know him, the closer he gets to know himself. By the end, we both reach the same conclusion, and that’s where the heartbreak lies. Beside him is the fantastic Charly Dannis, playing his every interest with such conviction that we fall in love with each iteration. With every song, she threatens to steal the show. Their moment in the middle of the show, where a miscarriage happened, had a lot of the audience beyond touched. There were tears everywhere!
The direction by Brian Freeland merged excellently with De Gre’s aesthetic. Using the goth art that inspired his previous operettas, “Jack Of Hearts, Master of None” creates a different atmosphere with it. It shows the illusion of love as a rabbit hole that we build with our decisions. This generates some powerful visuals to accompany the exquisite music. While the space itself gave us certain problems with being able to hear the actors at times, their acting and movement gave us enough to never get lost. The stage and lighting produced something equally as mesmerizing.
The play is a transitional play from an author reaching a new level of maturity. And as such, some moments are not as strong as others. Yet, it feels like this is what his career has been moving towards. And we should be happy for it, as this more subtle way of storytelling is his most uncompromising, and fundamentally generates a more potent production. The show will be at the HERE Arts Center until February 4. Do not miss this show.
CHRISTIAN DE GRé: TWISTED OPERETTAS
a SONG CYCLE
CRITIC'S PICK - FOUR STARS
By Nelson Diaz Marcano 7.27.2016
An artist’s growth can be a painful reminder of what growth really means. It means realizing the best next steps to take by failing. It means having multiple rejections and powering through the constant humiliation of everyday living. It’s taking risks that could transform you, both in a positive and negative way. It means re-inventing yourself constantly while trying to keep the best you had from the previous versions. Growing as an artist, in other words, is the pits. Only the most dedicated would go through with it. But it is also a thing of complete beauty. The maturity that comes with it, the reward of seeing your work recognized and out there, the constant inspiration you get from just sitting down and taking it in. All those traits make it worth it, and as I sat down at the gorgeous 54 Below I witnessed this process right before my eyes. Christian De Gré exposed his growing pains and delighted us with his growth on a night celebrating the last 15 years of his career.
“Twisted Operettas” had every step of De Gré’s evolution as a musical writer. From his early days creating more traditional fantasy musicals to the discoveries of his dark sound, everything is there and it’s obvious, which I thought was a brilliant way of showcasing his portfolio. His songs from the first musical he did “Spellbound” are not as interesting as the ones from his new musical “Jack of Hearts.” There’s an untrained playfulness in “Spellbound” that you can see reach its potential with “Fatty Fatty No Friends.” Consequently, this is what he refers as the second stage of his career and where the title of this concert comes from. As the playfulness finally finds its steps, the interesting part is seeing where his plotlines start moving towards. A more darker affair than “Spellbound” and his earlier work, “Fatty Fatty No Friends” kick starts the Burton-esque aesthetic of his work and the music to fit it. They are funny and heartbreaking, dark and light hearted, old school yet completely modern. His work reached a whole new level by the time “Beware the Chupacabra” had opened, but polished by “Whiskey Pants: The Mayor of Williamsburg,” the musical he did in between the other stand outs. These works show why he went from unknown to a staple of the NYC Fringe Festival and independent theater scene.
As impressive as the collection of songs were, it was the last third that caught my attention the most. Songs from his new work “Jack of Hearts” gives us a peek into an artist who is fully aware of his talents and ready to put it on display. It seems like the playfulness from his other works has been toned down, and the darkness will take his work into more dramatic territory. His maturity is now seeping as we get teased for his next production. Then a few songs from a musical he started working on got played, and the journey was complete. We had seen a man go from dreamer to a doer in the span of ninety minutes and we were the better for it.
I became a fan of Christian’s work last year when I reviewed two of his shows. I will be there when “Jack of Hearts” opens. Christian De Gré is not just someone to keep an eye open for, no, this artist is deserving of your support. Show that you appreciate good art and follow him.
FATTY FATTY NO FRIENDS
A DARK OPERETTA
CRITIC'S PICK - FOUR STARS
By Sarah Andrew 8.20.2014
In the opening moments of Fatty Fatty No Friends, we hear a band that evokes Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. The music (by Christian De Gré) has a creepy-carnival vibe, and the imagery is pure Halloween: stilt-walking skeletons and an army of stylish teens with black rings around their eyes. Obese Tommy (Jason Sofge) waddles straight into this horror show, assailed by taunting, abusive classmates and menaced by skeletons. Our chubby hero awakes, goes to school and is befriended for the first time in his life—until the popular mean girl (Mia Thomas) intervenes. Alone in the bathroom, Tommy realizes that his bullies aren’t nasty on the inside but actually…delicious. So he decides to take gruesome action. (Flesh hangs off characters’ bodies in the form of red sashes.) The inventive set is drawn on reversible sheets held up by performers, and the ensemble is perfectly despicable. But the real discovery is Sofge, whose vulnerability makes Tommy’s journey authentic rather than just endearing. (He shines in an amusing tune about sweatpants: “They don’t tear, they don’t split / They remind me that there’s a place I fit.”) De Gré, lyricist Joseph Reese Anderson and book writer Serrana Gay have created a surprisingly touching piece that, whether it makes you cackle or sniffle, ought to have a future life. With childhood obesity on the rise, this serotonin-boosting musical ought to be performed in schools throughout the land.
CRITIC'S PICK - THEASY BEST BET
by Jesse Tendler on 11.19.15
BOTTOM LINE: A dark and twisted operetta about an overweight, bullied youth who snaps when the only person who has ever been nice to him chooses social acceptance at the expense of poor Fatty.
This modern operetta, created by composer Christian De Gré, lyricist Joseph Reese Anderson, and based on the original short story by author Serrana Gay, is a searing look at the damaging effects of bullying and the desperate struggle for popularity. It provides a grotesque depiction of the manner in which an injured soul can be pushed over the edge.
The show begins before the operetta even starts, with two eerie stilt-walkers overseeing the stage. As the audience members trickle in and take their seats, the band, conducted by pianist-music director Aaron Butler, plays upstage in full costume. Though made up of only a piano, a bass clarinet, a viola, and a French horn, the band provides a full and complete underscoring for the deep emotions which the show evokes. As the story starts, we are introduced to Tommy (played by Jason Sofge), as he wakes up at home and laments not only his significant size but also the impending school day. His ode to elastic provides some short-lived levity in an otherwise dark tale. If we are honest with ourselves, the cruelty of children striving for acceptance is something we all remember well, regardless of whether we were the target of such derision ourselves or not. Tommy’s tale is no exception, and as Tommy boards the school bus, we are quickly introduced to Tommy’s alternate name: Fatty.
In fact, not one of the students with whom Tommy interacts knows his real name, with the exception of Emily, played by the adorable and capable Charly Dannis. Tommy’s self-image and self-confidence are ground into the dirt by the thoroughly imposing and authoritative Sally (Mia Thomas), whose lackeys echo her every sentiment. It seems that Tommy may finally break free from his crippling depression when Emily starts to genuinely befriend him, but alas, his skill as an artist actually spurs on Sally’s jealousy, causing her to sabotage the one friendship Tommy could have had. Sally plays upon Emily and Bobby’s insecurities, and Tommy is humiliated beyond what his fragile psyche can bear. From here, the story grows more grotesque (NOTE: this show is NOT recommended for young children!), as well as more metaphorical. There are child-shaped cookies, ghastly ghostly figures, suicidal implications, bright lights which would most likely be found at the end of a tunnel, and the ultimate lesson that one shouldn’t eat a bully, or anyone for that matter. As long as one doesn’t try to take the last 20% of the show too literally, the humanity of the characters does shine through, and the emotions raised throughout are powerful enough to bring one to tears.
The costumes (designed by Ashley Soliman) and the makeup (designed by Kate Marley) are stunning, providing an artistic element that transports the viewer into a visually captivating world which is simultaneously other-worldly and frighteningly familiar. Feast and Famine are particularly unnerving as the gatekeepers and narrators. Mia Thomas, as Sally, is such a convincingly despicable human being that I truly found myself cheering her gruesome fate. Jason Sofge shines as Tommy, not only because of his powerful voice and impressive range, but largely (no pun intended) because his pain, his trepidation, his hope, his sadness, his rage, and his regret are so incredibly palpable. Charly Dannis provides an adept counterpart as Emily, and it is the humanity of their relationship, the tragic fumbling, that draws tears. The entire cast is extremely strong, and individual characters stand out with wonderful quirks of their own.
The orchestrations are complex and beautiful, and the lyrics, though sometimes repetitive, drive the message home aptly. Certain tongue-twisting phrases are especially powerful. The producing company, Mind The Art Entertainment, has a wonderful legacy of producing powerful pieces that, while often non-traditional, are certainly memorable. Overall, Fatty is an operetta with tremendous heart, haunting melodies, engaging characters, gut-wrenching emotions, and valuable lessons, which should not be missed.
Nov 10, 2015
FATTY FATTY NO FRIENDS is a diabolically delicious musical morality tale of cruelty, revenge, consequences and redemption. Told in the form of an operetta, the challenges of getting through an ordinary day at an ordinary grammar school are heightened to where not only life and death hang in the balance, but also the fate of your very soul.
Tommy is the fat kid in class. He awakes with dread every morning, yet still finds infectious joy in having a pair of pants with an elastic band: something made just for him. Heartbreakingly played by JASON SOFGE, Tommy’s daily trials remind us all of how for some kids simply finding a seat on the bus could be akin to navigating a minefield, and recess was often a seemingly endless time of excruciating loneliness.
Except of course until the Mean Kids show up.
Tommy’s classmates are a pack of pint-size beastly brats. Their candy-colored clothes contrast caustically with their pale skin, sunken eyes and garish grins. Their taunting “Fatty Fatty No Friends! It’s a song that never ends!” song underscores much of the other music: a constant and contagiously catchy earworm of a tune that will probably still be clanging around in your head hours after leaving the theater. (Side Note: I still can’t stop singing it. The song REALLY doesn’t end!)
The only remotely child is Emily (the charmingly wide-eyed CHARLY DANNIS). Since she doesn’t take the bus, she’s not allowed to play with the Mean Kids. She is the only one who kinda-sorta wants to befriend Tommy….actually, she’s the only one who even knows his name.
Hovering over all of this, lumbering menacingly about the stage on huge stilts, are two towering figures credited as FEAST and FAMINE. Their appearance is skeletal, bestial primitive and genuinely frightening. Their presence elevates the story to something more than a children’s theater show from Hell. Acting as both a Greek chorus and Tommy’s conscience, they turn the events onstage into a predestined, unavoidable, unstoppable tragedy.
FATTY FATTY NO FRIENDS, based on the equally ghoulish book by SERRANA GAY, calls to mind the infamous German SHOCKHEADED PETER children’s stories in which our young protagonists were more likely to meet the Grim Reaper than Prince Charming.
In the role of Tommy, SOFGE manages to both lightness and gravitas to his performance, and his soaring tenor singing voice turns childhood angst into operatic agony. The rest of the cast functions as a true ensemble making it impossible to favor one bully, brat (or otherworldly entity) over another. Even the costuming of the devilishly divine four-piece orchestra adds to the macabre carnival-like feel.
When the Mean Kids trick Emily into participating in a particularly repugnant prank that pushes Tommy too far, he enacts a giddily gory reign of cartoonish carnage upon the caustic creeps. Nibbled necks, flayed flesh and extracted eyeballs abound. While one can’t feel too badly for the snotty snooty savages, Tommy is about to learn that some mistakes can’t be fixed, some wrongs and be made right, and it’s a very small step from Victim to Monster.
And that bullies are delicious.
And so is FATTY FATTY NO FRIENDS.
4 OUT OF 4 STARS
By Nelson Diaz-Marcano- October 26, 2015
“Fatty Fatty no friends, it’s the song that never ends…”
Hear those words. Let them become part of you. Let them seep into you. Realize what they mean then… unleash on them! Halloween season brings another great seasonal tale for us to watch on stage. After taking a break from the horrific with a little stroll through Broadway, I went back to the land of nightmares and boy was I excited about it. How can you not when the next show is a Mind The Art Entertainment production, the same people that a few months back produced the quirky brilliance that was “Beware of The Chupacabra,” how can you not be excited? Oh yeah, expectations were high when I went down to the C.O.W, which most of the time ends in a sort of disappointment. Not because the show ends up being bad, but because expectations already had decided this for you. There’s rare occasions that the show reaches those high expectations we go in with. Then there’s the even most bizarre occasions that a production meets those expectations then raises above them. So does “Fatty Fatty No Friends” deliver?
“Fatty Fatty No Friends” is a dark operetta that explores the effects of bullying, classism, and the fragile mental state of human beings through the eyes of an overweight child living in a gothic version of our reality. Haunted by his own self, the story follows Tommy through a day in his life as the “fatty” from the title. The usual cliches of such stories are used and then reinvented. There are undertones of something sinister guiding our hand through the cheerful music that accompanies it. The amazing voices telling us the beats of the story as they happen and we follow each one with ghoulish delight. This is a children’s show aimed at adults, (or an adult show made for kids) that takes great pleasure of welcoming us into the web of adult themes that are mixed with the simple narrative. This creates an elaborate message at the end, one that is poignant, and it does it without hitting you over the head with it. Most children’s show wear their message on their sleeve, this one might be obvious, but the way it’s told makes it unique and exciting. And children should be able to see it, besides the gory and twisted ending, this is perfect for them. After all, fairy tales used to be like this, to scare children and amuse them at the same time and in the process, teach them.
The staging is creative, yet subtle. Not much stage to talk about. The musical aspects of the show are played on stage by a band that is as much a part of the show as the actors are. I would catch myself staring at them. And the music they played! What a joy! One of my favorite musical moments is at the very start when our main character sings his heart out about the one thing that makes him happy, his stretchy pants. Jason Sofge’s performance as Tommy was breathtaking. He allowed himself to be as silly as a kid would be, becoming one, and in the process made us fall in love with the grotesque character they all described. For us he is not grotesque, he is a child, a misunderstood and unloved child that needs the attention the same way the others do. We understand his plight, his fear of the bus, his attitude of belonging, and his yearning for that one real friend that in the end will be his fall. The rest of the cast was spectacular, especially the evil clique, who were deliciously mischievous!
The one thing I’m mad about with this show is its length! Yes, it is a perfect run time for a kid’s show, but for me as an adult I wanted to see more… mostly because I didn’t want these characters go. Not yet, and after Beware of The Chupacabra went two and a half hours long without intermission (they are lucky it was great, that type of length without intermission can make someone kill a person,) I was hoping this one was at least half an hour longer!
“Fatty Fatty No Friends” by De Gré, Reese Anderson & Gay, is playing at the C.O.W (The Celebration of Whimsy: 21 Clinton St, New York, NY 10002) until the end of this month. Before I end up this review, I want to explain my rating for it. I’m giving it four stars, which is the same I gave “On Your Feet.” Is it as good as “On Your Feet,” which is playing in a Broadway house? I liked it more, but I also judged it differently. “On Your Feet” was an amazing entertainment piece which trails the story of an icon with the usual Broadway glam. The book was paper thin, but the rating was for the experience, which I will cherish as a latino and a theater goer. Here, we have a show with not even a quarter of its budget that manages to achieve twice the charm. Mind Your Art Entertainment is doing great work out there; this revival of their award-winning show reaffirms it. I hope not much time passes between now and when we see these crazy folks’ shows on the bigger stages. I can see it and so will you once you see this production. So does it deliver? Do you need to ask?
September 15th 2014
There are two types of theater, one that makes you laugh or cry and one that gives you an unforgettable experience. Fatty Fatty No Friends is the latter. Once this fast-paced musical starts, it is like a tsunami of emotions constantly sweeping over you with unrelenting angst. We get caught in the storm, and have to ride it out. The show feels like one big gasp;you hold your breath and don’t let go until the show ends. I was so immersed in this play and emotionally provoked that I was speechless for about ten minutes after it finished because I was so internally stirred that I needed time to digest and decompress after witnessing this intense piece of theater
Bullying has become the plague of the 21st century. Kids are being confronted with horrific torment, that causes many of them to snap or, worse yet, commit suicide. Such is the life of Tommy, an obese child who gets picked on daily because of his size Not surprisingly, Tommy eventually rebels and takes revenge on his tormenters. However justified, Tommy’s conscience is bothered by his maniacal plan. This forces Tommy to re-evaluate his choices and decide on what kind of man he hopes to become.
I think everyone can relate to Tommy’s dilemma and the outrageous cruelty that kids can inflict on each other, Jason Sofge plays the broken Tommy excellently. His raw emotional connection to Tommy is captivating, which makes our identification with his character even stronger. Oh yeah, he can also sing the pants (pun-intended) off like it’s nobody’s business. He is a force to be reckoned with, not because of his size, but because of his immense talent. Mia Moretti Thomas has the unenviable task of playing Sally, the head bully. Moretti goes for the jugular in every scene and we hate her in the best sense of the word. There are two ominous demons who lurk around the stage, never exiting that further torment Tommy. Not only do they sing well, but they do it on stilts. My hats go off to Isaac Harold and Jessica Rose Furran who played these challenging characters very well.
The only slight qualm I had is with the unequal volume of the actors. Most projected well, but there were some whose sound was lost in the big theater. I can go on and on about the merits of this production. But the fact that it was brought back by the Fringe Encore Series, says a lot in and of itself. This is one of the best productions I’ve seen in a long time. Simply put, it’s FATastic!
by Teddy Nicholas · August 18, 2014
Fatty Fatty No Friends is a macabre operetta about the horror of school bullying and its devastating consequences. Tommy (a terrific Jason Sofge) is constantly bullied by his fellow classmates because of his weight. Two similarly outcast kids, Bobby (a standout Malcolm Jenkins Yancey) and Emily (Mallory Campbell), attempt to befriend Tommy, but their attempts are thwarted by the popular kids in school who encourage them to taunt Tommy. Three dark spirits on stilts spark Tommy’s rage from within, and once the last straw breaks the camel’s back, Tommy lashes out with deadly consequences.
The music and direction by Christian De Gre is impressively sombre, tightly blocked, and, at times, earnestly spirited and reflective. Supporting the teasingly memorable lyrics by Joseph Reese-Anderson, the songs (the show is almost entirely sung-thru) feature complex melodic and counterpoint lines, featuring some impressive choral harmonizing and staccato wordplay by the incredibly able young ensemble. The onstage band and the supporting ensemble are dressed in Dresden Dolls-like Brechtian-punk garbs (impressive costumes by Ashley Soliman) and makeup (haunting makeup by Kate Marley). Indeed, the book by Serrana Gay, De Gre & Reese-Anderson is pure parable: Tommy could be any outcast child in America. The terrifying logical outcome of tormenting weaker children in schools often provokes deadly and devastating consequences, including suicide and murder.
It is impressive that Fatty Fatty No Friends follows its logic, then gives us pause to wonder about the true monsters of our society. I believe this piece, once fully finished (it is still in development) would be best served produced in middle schools all over the country. This is a show that looks deeply at the core of our society’s faults, and delivers important messages, and should be delivered to those who need it most: Our youth.
By Greg Solomon on 8.15.14
BOTTOM LINE: While not a finished piece, Fatty Fatty No Friends shows a great deal of potential.
Fatty Fatty No Friends gets off to an incredible start introducing us to the character of Tommy (Jason Sofge). He wakes up terrified to face the day ahead at school in a sequence that feels like a twisted take on "Good Morning Baltimore," the opening number in the musical Hairspray. As he spins about his room beaming about the joys of elastic waist pants, the audience instantly falls in love with the overweight boy.
Of course, dark times are ahead as the kids at school make fun of him until he eventually cracks and devours them. From here the show loses steam a bit as it turns into a tale about redemption and temptation with a tone switch that doesn’t quite feel at home.
Although uneven, there’s a great deal of talent behind this production. Some of the songs by Christian De Gre and Joseph Reese-Anderson are quite memorable and Sofge is an incredible talent. Fatty Fatty No Friends is well worth attending, especially through the first third of the piece. In the notes from the creators in the program, they point out that "this piece is still in development" and unfortunately it shows in the final scenes. I sincerely hope that the artists continue to workshop it and present in again in a more polished presentation. Until then, I will have the title song stuck in my head whenever I pass by a larger person on the street and feel an immense pang of guilt for noticing.
By Natalie Sacks on August 19th 2014
Musical takes on childhood fat-shaming and bullying in a comic and yet eerily surreal way.
Fatty Fatty No Friends is the first FringeNYC musical we are reviewing here on CHARGED.fm, and it does exactly what musicals are great at: putting a new spin on an everyday situation by taking it out of the world of realism. For this show, the issue is bullying of overweight children, and an eerie, intricate musical score and polished production make this fantastical story--involving extreme violence and even cannibalism--feel shockingly real.
Performing Cruelty with Grace
Tommy is the only fat kid he knows, and he has never had a friend. On a day like any other, he wakes up, gets dressed, goes to school and encounters a series of ever more cruel torments just for trying to live his life the way he is. The musical is almost entirely sung or spoken to the rhythm of the backing orchestra, so each of these simple activities acquires a new significance as Tommy contemplates the horror of never having clothes that fit or hearing other children claim to be his friends and then mock him behind his back.
The star of this show is really the music, from the haunting "Fatty Fatty No Friends" recurring melody to the intricate harmonies performed by the chorus. Of course, actor Jason Sofge's extraordinary voice brings the entire show to a new level, while his heartbreaking performance of the sensitive child torn to shreds by the attacks of the other children instantly creates sympathy amongst the audience. Other star performers include Mallory Campbell as Tommy's would-be friend Emily and Mia Moretti Thomas as head bully Sally, but this is really a show about the power of the chorus, which is universally strong.
The other highlight of Fatty Fatty No Friends is the masterful costume and make-up design by Ashley Soliman and Kate Marley, respectively. From the looming stilt-walker inner demons to the cast of children all color-coded into factions with cartoonish hats and hair bows, depicting stereotypes come to life, these outfits add an extra dimension of surreality to the piece. The smears of facepaint and drawn-on pink cheeks and freckles add to that cartoon quality, while even the orchestra are dressed in the demonic black and white of Tommy's inescapable world.
The actual story of the play does not quite live up to its extraordinary performance, but the cast do their best with a difficult, spooky and yet also comic idea. The turn to violence and revenge is a little anti-climactic, though again the costume solution to depicting the kids' gruesome injuries is very well done. Meanwhile, the ending is a bit too neat and preachy for a play that involves cannibalism, though I do appreciate the expansion of Tommy's world to include other bullied children.
Fatty Fatty No Friends is a musical that forces you to take childhood bullying seriously, and it does so with both humor and grace. While the revenge fantasy is not always successful in remaining in the world of fantasy, the fantastic music and costuming more than makes this show worth it. Come see this musical, and prepare to look at schoolyard bullying (and sugar cookie people) in a very different way.
FOUR STARS- August 14th 2014
The very best FringeNYC musical of 2014 about a lonely fat kid who responds to his bullying classmates by eating them—with operatic music composed & orchestrated by the brilliant Christian De Gré.
Beware the chupacabra!
A musical comedy
FOUR AND A HALF STARS
Nelson Diaz-Marcano- September 2, 2015
There’s so many things that can make a production successful. It can have an incredible technical presence in which the audience can find themselves lost. This can mask poor storytelling easily, just as the ability to tell a good story can hide the limited technical aspects. Some will create philosophies that will change your life. Some make you think about your own future and present life. But if you look for the most important piece of the entertainment puzzle, well, it is to entertain. In that aspect, the laugh-out-loud funny and joyful “Beware The Chupacabra!” soars on stage in front of our very eyes.
The absurdist musical follows on the steps of productions like “Urinetown,” which spotlights what troubles society using the most ridiculous of plots. In this case, it’s all about a tailor who starts going out with a high society girl after she falls in love with his dresses. Throw in there a future father-in-law that hates the tailor and a crazy search for a mythical creature in the jungles of Mexico and you have the basic plot of this play. The creature being the titular Chupacabra, of course. And I have to say, the folks at Mind The Art Entertainment did a great job at creating what was one of the most enjoyable experience I had in a theater.
Created by R. Patrick Alberty and Christian De Gré “Beware The Chupacabra!” manages to have the perfect balance for a show to succeed. The ensemble’s work is the heart and soul of the musical. And I mean everyone! From the main characters to the players, all of them seem to be having as much fun as we are seeing them. The technical aspects had a lot to do with this. Having a simple and effective set and an economical lighting design let the players flow on and off stage easily without distraction or making odd transitions. Instead, each one seems like a complete person, even those characters that were there for a only scene left an impact.
Now not everything was amazing! No. In fact, I wasn’t amused by the first quarter of the production. At first, it seems like it’s trying very hard to be witty. The musical numbers are very similar, and the book doesn’t really grab you. Add to that the fact that the space was so big that the orchestra drowns the voices of the performers and I spent most of the numbers figuring out what they were saying, and the result was a muddy introduction to the world. But all of that dissipates once the main character arrives in Mexico. It’s like the creators themselves couldn’t wait to get to that part to bring it all together.
There’s a reason this team is comprised of award-winners. Their production oozes the cleverness most musicals dream to have, and the audiences love it. “Beware The Chupacabra!” had a great run at the Fringe NYC this year and manages to stand out from the huge pack that make up the program of this festival. The whimsical show will be back at some point, and if I were you I would be checking when. Besides a slow intro into the world, this show is first class. New work is alive, so SUPPORT IT!
By Jose Solis August 2015
Teddy Baskins (Vinnie Urdea), the passive hero at the center of Beware the Chupacabra, is the kind of person who has things happen to him, as opposed to being the master and commander of his own destiny. From unwillingly letting an heiress (Caitlin Wees) get him fired and agreeing to marry her, to finding himself in a remote Mexican jungle in search of the mythical Chupacabra in order to prove his father-in-law-to-be (Everette O’Neil) he’s a “man’s man”, poor Teddy is dragged all over by circumstance, and luck has it, he always manages to land on his feet. He’s like the straight man in a Marx Brothers comedy, unaware that he is fortune’s fool, but doing it with such charm that we can’t help but root for him, wish to overprotect him even.
Created by R. Patrick Alberty and Christian de Gré (who co-wrote and also co-direct) the show is a throwback to pre-Code Hollywood entertainment, complete with exotic locales, otherworldly creatures and hedonistic musical numbers that don’t take the story anywhere, but are a treat to sit through. There are numbers performed by elderly gentlemen members of a high society club that elicited hollers from the audience, if anything, the ensemblists of the show are the true scene-stealers, playing everything from the aforementioned gentlemen to Mexican villagers and flappers with ease and imprinting them with unique personalities.
It’s essential to point out that even though the show could’ve gotten away with using the troublesome conventions of the era it’s paying homage to, instead it subverts the tropes. For instance we get a female Chupacabra (Charly Dannis), who isn’t only beautiful - her costume makes one think of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman as if done by Maurice Sendak - but also is given the opportunity to be both scary and tender. The show also plays with the racial humor that makes one watch Bing Crosby/Bob Hope movies with equal parts affection and disgust, by having a hilarious character named Tipo (Robb Moreira) who initially seems to be ready to be a Speedy Gonzalez redux but slowly gives path to becoming a wonderful character all his own. Kudos to the writers for not translating many of the jokes in the show, and for allowing Tipo to be smarter than the characters who initially want to take advantage of him.
For a show that starts off with a beggar (played by a pitch perfect Eric Whitten) asking for money among the audience, and ends becoming a revision of King Kong and Beauty and the Beast filtered through screwball aesthetics, it’s astonishing that Beware the Chupacabra knows itself so well and always seems to be in complete control. As it goes down a quirky, insane path, like it does with its unwilling hero, it would be silly not to let it take you along with it.
By Dan Dinero on 9.1.15
When the title of a musical has both a mythical goat-sucking beast and an exclamation point, one might well expect a big ol’ campfest, especially at the Fringe Festival. And while Beware the Chupacabra! is many (maybe too many) things, it most definitely is not this.
The show opens with a homeless vagrant wandering amidst a rousing carefree dance number celebrating the New Year (it’s 1920). Lest we think this homeless dude is a main character, we quickly move to the working class dress shop where our hero, Teddy Baskins (Vinnie Urdea), works. After his boss Jasper Sloan (Nick Connolly) leaves, in comes trouble—in the form of Victoria Warner (Caitlin Wees), a high society type who steals one of Teddy’s newest creations after he politely refuses to sell it to her. Victoria returns the dress, but in doing so Teddy gets fired, and somehow Victoria manages to get Teddy to come live with her so he can make dresses for her. And also apparently marry her. But Victoria’s father Arris Warner (Everett O’Neill) isn’t such a fan of Teddy, perhaps partly because he shares a name with one of the men Arris most despises—Teddy Roosevelt. Indeed, Warner has designs on the Presidency, and hopes his cronies in the League of American Democratic Sportsmen (LADS) will support him over that Harding character, a rival who has the gall to be from Ohio.
If you’re wondering where and how we get from all this to a mythical goat-sucking beast most famous in Central and South America, be patient: the word “chupacabra” isn’t even uttered until about halfway through the musical. Eventually, Arris decides he can get rid of Teddy by sending him to Mexico in order to kill the Chupacabra. Teddy is so nice and innocent that he goes willingly, under the supervision of Warner’s minion Grimsby (Eric Whitten), who is supposed to use the trip to bump Teddy off. They land in a hotel run by Tipo (Robert Moreira), who tells them that no one who has gone after the beast has lived. But the Chupacabra (Charly Dannis) turns out to be more misunderstood than terrifying, and with the help of one of Teddy’s newfangled inventions (a “caller,” worn as a collar), Teddy and the Chupacabra are able to speak with each other; as it often does in stories like this, communication quickly leads to friendship and trust.
Even before the musical begins, the homeless vagrant wandering the house asking patrons for change suggests that serious themes will be addressed. And indeed, the first half of the musical is a sort of critique of capitalism and class structures, in the style of Brecht and Weill. While the Chupacabra survives by sucking the blood of goats and other animals, one of the messages here is that it’s the rich who are the real bloodsuckers. The creative team also seems to be gesturing towards a critique of American imperialism and xenophobia, although this gets a bit muddied when the Mexico we see embodies every sort of stereotype possible. Given that composer Christian De Gré is himself from Mexico, I’m guessing the “Mexico on steroids” aspects of costume and character are intended as a kind of conscious skewering of U.S. perceptions of foreigners, although this could be more explicit. But once Teddy and the Chupacabra meet, the entire piece gradually shifts to become a much more intimate musical, in which two…creatures form an alliance across their differences, with the assistance of a few and in defiance of many others.
The entire twelve-person ensemble is excellent, but there are a few standouts. As Tipo, Robert Moreira is terrific, bringing a much-needed authenticity to what could easily become an overly stereotyped character. Vinnie Urdea is delightfully energetic and wide-eyed as Teddy Baskins; his tongue-twisting “rap” to the townspeople in Mexico is a highlight in a show rich with lyrical intricacies. And as the Chupacabra, Charly Dannis is outstanding, bringing a lovely humanity (not to mention powerful voice) to the strange title character. Partly because of Urdea and Dannis, the scenes between Teddy and the Chupacabra form the emotional core of the show, and their duets are the strongest moments in the score. Kyle O’Connor’s set design—painted fabric panels on frames that turn like pages in a book—is a clever solution to festival limitations. And Ashley Soliman’s richly detailed costumes play a crucial role in character development, and are professional enough for a commercial Off Broadway production, let alone a Fringe show.
Patrick Alberty’s writing (book and lyrics) is quite intelligent, and often quite dense; there’s the feeling that he has so much to say he wants to squeeze in as much as possible. And De Gré’s music is more sophisticated than a typical musical theatre score; it's legit as opposed to pop/rock, in the vein of Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins. De Gré's orchestrations for piano and woodwinds (flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, and sax) help give his music an unusual sound that is suitable for the time period and subject matter, providing a refreshing contrast to other works of contemporary musical theatre. These writers clearly have a lot of talent, but choosing to co-direct this show as well may not have been the wisest idea: aside from some minor staging inconsistencies, Beware the Chupacabra! meanders a bit and lacks structure and a narrative arc; at over two hours with no intermission, it feels a bit overstuffed. This show doesn’t really know what it wants to be yet, which, to be fair, is often the case with ambitious new musicals. Once Alberty and De Gré figure it out, I suspect Beware the Chupacabra! will be a strong and insightful piece.
Posted by Michael Block August 29th 2015
There tends to be monotony when it comes to musical theater. All new musicals seem to follow the same themes and style causing them to blend into one another. But when something different arrives, you take note. Beware the Chupacabra is just that. Different. With book and lyrics by R. Patrick Alberty and music by Christian De Gre, the story follows seamstress Teddy, yes he's a boy, who gets himself caught in a pretty ill-timed situation where the father of his girl forces him to hunt down the mythical Chupacabra. Despite an insane amount of excess material all over the place that desperately needs to be trimmed, Beware the Chupacabra is a unique and exciting new musical. What makes it enticing is the tonality and visual style of the show. The best way to describe it is a mash up between the heart of Disney, the whimsy of Tim Burton, and dry tone of Wes Anderson. If that doesn't get you intrigued, I don't know what will. Beware the Chupacabra follows the recipe of musical theater, which is where R. Patrick Alberty runs into the problem of too much material. It's all there. There's a love story. And dance numbers. And subplots. By the end of the show, Alberty and De Gre have provided three or four potential eleven o'clock numbers. The key to this story is Teddy. Any material that does not directly or indirectly involves him could be prime for the trimming. And even so, the latter bits with Jasper have little barring on Teddy’s arc as we have long forgotten the store owner. Beware the Chupacabra has all the material of an incredible musical present, but it's surrounded by the unnecessary. Does it mean losing some fun material, especially for bad guy Arris Warner? Yes. But once the fluff is gone, the vast potential will shine bright.
The score by De Gre blends 20s jazz with Broadway standards and a touch of regional Mexican flare. When they unite, the musical through line is quite exciting to hear. As is an orchestration with a present and proud bass clarinet.
The ensemble that comprised Beware the Chupacabra was certainly committed to going all out. Alberty and De Gre played upon sight gags and stereotypes, meaning everyone needed to play along. And they did. The glue of the musical is Teddy. Teddy is a beautifully endearing and optimistic character. That's what makes him so incredible to follow. And Vinnie Urdea plays him near flawlessly. Urdea as Teddy has a Michael Cera charm to him, dorky yet endearing, with a pure vocal. As bad dad, Arris Warner, Everett O’Neill seemed to have more fun than anyone getting to be sinister and vile. O’Neill is the stuff that Disney villains are made on. The unsung hero of the show is Robert Moreira as Tipo. Moreira played the stereotypes and earned the uproarious laughs. Moreira has an ease to his comedic presence. He’s subtle yet overt. He simply walks on stage and it’s hilarious. Charly Dannis as La Chupacabra had a very difficult task. With Alberty borrowing a device from a certain 2009 Pixar film, Dannis was able to communicate in “human” by wearing a collar. Dannis sold it. And sold the bond she had with Urdea’s Vinnie. You can make so many Disney references about this show because Teddy and Chupacabra’s bond. It is almost as touching as the pair in “The Fox and the Hound.” And this musical is steps away from garnering tears.
Beware the Chupacabra strives on the visual appeal. Costume designer Ashley Soliman and scenic designer Kyle O’Connor are the true soul of this musical. Their designs are cohesive and stunning. Soliman’s use of color is rewarding. She keeps the city world quite dreary with subtle bursts of color. This allows the color within the sepia-toned Mexico to radiate. O’Connor’s set was practical, despite some transition issues with the occasional too many moving pieces. With Alberty and De Gre serving as co-directors, it’s inevitable that it was difficult to eliminate any material. But to their credit, they presented a very clear and cohesive vision. The style was consistent and interesting.
The situation within the story may be farfetched, but by blending comedy with mythology and a touching tale of friendship between man and beast, there is something that is certain to pull you in. Two plus hours with no intermission is difficult to sit through but when the script gets stripped, Beware the Chupacabra will be magical.
Hy Bender on August 29th 2015
Beware the Chupacabra! had a rocky start. It was scheduled to premiere on August 19th, but that first performance had to be canceled due to an air conditioning breakdown at its Venue #13, The Lynn Redgrave Theater. Beware didn't reach the stage until August 26th, becoming the very last of the 185 festival productions to open.
As it turns out, fate saved the best for last.
This oddball tale starts by exploring poverty and politics in 1920s New York, and then veers off to the jungles of Mexico in pursuit of a legendary beast. As even that brief description indicates, the storytelling choices are unconventional. In fact, they sometimes break the rules so far as to hinder a fully satisfying emotional experience. But such problems are offset by the show's freshness, brashness, and insistence on doing the unexpected.
And anyway, story isn't the main reason to see this. Thanks to genius Christian De Gré, it's the composition and orchestration.
This production provides, as far as I can determine, the finest music at this year's FringeNYC. Indeed, De Gré's exquisite music is in a galaxy all its own. It's brought to life by a four-person band consisting of Aaron Butler on piano, Aaron Patterson on flute and alto sax, Sarah Cohen on clarinet, and Jeffrey Hodes on bass clarinet; and by a group of fine performers who include operatic singers. Especially notable is the show-stopping title song, which is both hilarious and likely to keep you humming it for weeks.
De Gré broke new ground last year with his operatic dark children's tale Fatty Fatty No Friends. Beware the Chupacabra! continues to push boundaries via quirky productions no one else would even dare attempt.
If you missed this during its too-short run at the festival, grab tickets for its FringeNYC Encores extension at Soho Playhouse.
Leah Richards, September 1st 2015
Teddy Baskins (Vinnie Urdea) is a creative guy. Teddy designs and sews sought-after dresses. Teddy also invents sci-fi-worthy gadgets. An earnest, good-hearted, unassuming type, he works long hours in Jasper Sloan’s (Nicholas Connolly) dress shop and dreams of finding a woman who shares his enthusiasm for gadgets. A chance encounter with heiress Victoria “V” Warner (Caitlin Wees) on New Year’s Eve 1920 pulls Teddy out of his routine and his shop, ultimately steering his path to Mexico and a hunt for the eponymous creature of Beware the Chupacabra!
R. Patrick Alberty and Christian De Gré’s musical comedy, part of the 19th annual New York International Fringe Festival, begins with characters who, in parallel to Teddy’s dreams of changing the world through his gadgets, are convinced that the new decade will usher in a new Golden Age, fulfilling the American promise of prosperity for all. The presence and arrest of a homeless man (a darkly realistic, though short-lived element in the play’s otherwise brightly colored and heightened world) raises some doubt about this particular utopian dream. Even the Warners, whose patriarch, Arris (Everett O’Neill), hates Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives, are fighting a downward financial trajectory. Arris is a leading member of the League of American Diplomats and Sportsmen, or LADS, a group of like-minded rich men who want to use the political and legal systems to ensure that their lifestyle of drinking and shooting animals continues unabated. Victoria inconveniently brings the decidedly not-wealthy Teddy home during an important meeting of the LADS, and it is Arris who, with ulterior motives, eventually sends Teddy on his golden fleece-style quest to Mexico. During this second half of Chupacabra, the thematic emphasis shifts somewhat to fame as Teddy is tempted with nationwide recognition (tied, of course, to wealth). It also settles into familiar classic monster movie tropes, as Teddy discovers that La Chupacabra (Charly Dannis) is not exactly what everyone thinks.
Some of the humor in Chupacabra comes from metatheatrical moments (characters know that they are singing and discuss who is the lead and who is the villain), but much of it is Broad(way musical) comedy, playing on stereotypes such as the Spoiled Rich Girl, the Great White Hunter, and (sometimes unfortunately) the Garrulous Mexican Cantina Owner (Robert Moreira as Tipo, the only character whose ethics and loyalties are never corrupted) and his Mariachi-Style Clientele. The cast members acquit themselves well, from the comic breakdown of Eric Whitten’s henchman Grimsby to the ways that Wees’s petulant Victoria wields her sexuality as a weapon and Dannis’s sinuous, uncanny Chupacabra learns about being something like a human while still preoccupied with goat-sucking and consuming flesh. Vinnie Urdea’s performance as Teddy is outstanding: his comedic delivery is consistently excellent, but he can also evoke pathos when necessary -- and, it is worth mentioning, he nails a difficult, rapid-fire song late in the proceedings.
Beware the Chupacabra! will appeal to those who like their musical theater quirky but not too dark. The music is catchy, the sets clever, and the comedy light. Voted a fan favorite at FringeNYC, this chupacabra is nothing to beware. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler
WHISKEY PANTS: The MAYOR OF WILLIAMSBURG
A CONTEMPORARY OPERETTA
February 24, 2015 by Valerie Cardinal
Whiskey Pants is an absurdly ambitious musical, with lavish costumes, an ample cast, a live band and a large helping of group numbers. It has a lot of moving parts, and somehow, Mind the Art Entertainment pulls it all together beautifully. If you’re going to see only one musical at the Frigid Festival, this is it.
Since “the event,” the townsfolk, in addition to the mayor of Williamsburg himself, have lived by drinking all day and forgetting their worries. In just one hour, Whiskey Pants creates a very full alternate universe that is equal parts quirky and dystopian. Here, people have forgotten their occupations, elections are replaced by drinking contests and dreaming is highly discouraged.
There are no weak links in the ensemble; a wobbly harmony appeared once in a while, but overall the singing was strong and the performances believable. The most impressive vocals came from Nicholas Connolly as the titular mayor, and Rachel Drayke was compelling as the daughter who longs to be more than just a whiskey drinker. The stage never feels cluttered despite the multiple group numbers thanks to Christian De Gré’s capable direction and Mariel Lowe’s choreography. The live band plays magnificently, and Mary Spencer Knapp is charming as the accordion-wielding narrator. Serrena Gay and Joseph Reese Anderson’s writing is smart, funny and moving. De Gré’s music and orchestrations are catchy and lush.
My only complaint about Whiskey Pants is that it ended too soon. I’m hoping that we will someday be treated to a full-length version, as some moments could do with more fleshing out. Even as is it, Whiskey Pants is sure to remain one of my festival highlights as a strong musical that looks great and sounds even better.
Yes, look at these photos. Thats what drew you in right? Someone did a great job designing Whiskey Pants: The Mayor of Williamsburg, a contemporary opera/musical about a post-apocalyptic Williamsburg where everyone drinks whiskey to forget that they let their dreams die.
That someone is costume designer, Ashley Soliman, a talented visionary designer who gives this world a sort of post-apocalyptic steam punk feel, with waistcoats patched together from various pieces of rags and canes made from Makers Mark wax seals. Make up designer, Kate Marley’s skills were put to superior use as well, down to the last detail of dust outlining on characters faces suggesting they had worn goggles in a sand storm. Yes the designers had a field day with this show and its worth it to see for that aspect alone.
The theme, the heart of the show is very worthwhile. It tells about a town of people who gave up their dreams to drink, and asks the question, “what dream did you give up somewhere along the way,” and “what would it take for you to try again?” The most poignant moment was when two ensemble members came forward to have their tales sung: one was an actor who moved here and ended up a waiter, the other was a med student who didn’t have the grades to pass med school so they came to post-apocalyptic Williamsburg to drink their lives away. Stories all to real. In fact, how many real life stories just like those populate real life Williamsburg?
The leads in the show give great performances, most notable are actors Nicholas Connolly, and Mary Knapp. The most beautiful voice on the stage belongs to Nicholas Connolly, who plays the evil mayor. Connolly’s commanding baritone leads the show. His acting is superb as well as he shows great restraint in scenes carful to play the circumstances of his world and avoid the trap of overdoing it. Mary Knapp’s stage presence cuts through the theater like lightening. Even when Knapp has no lines, she draws the eye of the audience merely by the amount of interest she has for the other events in the scene. An amazing performer to watch.
The main drawback of this show is a technical one. The sound levels seem to be a bit off so that sometimes the musicians drown out certain soloists. The other drawback is that with so many songs about drinking whiskey, the ensemble is called upon to portray drunk characters. If done poorly, there is nothing worse than watching an actor pretend to be drunk for an hour. More time might have been spent encouraging certain ensemble members to not play at generic drunkenness, and really explore how they behave in real life under the influence of alcohol.
The music is wonderful, and composer De Gre creates an operetta style similar to that of Sondheim. Every lyric serves the story which is itself quite good and wraps up nicely. Whiskey Pants is an excellent show, and the perfect answer to the accusation that there is no new musical theater of quality being made. Take your snarky highbrow Sondheim connoisseur friends to it and watch them change their minds.