Sunday, July 17, 2011

Toronto Fringe Reviews - THE SOAPS and MISPRINT

Managed to catch a few shows at the Toronto Fringe Festival.

The Soaps was a terrific improvised Fringe Show filled to brimming with the veteran, comedic/improv talent that is the National Theatre of the World. The soap opera framework is a perfect venue to showcase the kind of oddball characters and ridiculous plot twists that improv thrives and the cast obviously enjoy playing with each other.

With so many quick wits on the stage, there is a danger of a show like this becoming too static and verbal. For me, the most extraordinary moments occurred when the performers strayed out of their heads and let their bodies lead them to new heights of hilarity. A brief scene of a custodian character learning how to actually stop working and sit down in a chair for the first time in his life, while reacting to his first touch of a woman (as she helps him sit) was particularly delightful.

The Soaps isn't just happening at the Fringe. It's one of a series of ongoing NTotW shows happening regularly in Toronto. Check out their website to see what's coming up.

On Friday afternoon, I saw a work with a ton of potential both onstage and off. It's not surprising that MISPRINT, "A comic book musical comedy" by Lauren Toffin and Yan Li, was chosen pick of the Fringe for its venue, the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

There is an extraordinary amount of talent on display in Misprint – a musical take-off of an Archie-esque comic book town. For musicality and ambition this show can't be beat. The cast is uniformly talented. Every number is superbly brought to life by a delightful cast and a wonderful mix of voices. Particular stand-outs are Kristen Sehn and Laren Toffan, who bring their polar-opposite, cartoon girlfriend characters to exquisite, three-dimensional life.

Composer Yan Li's musical ability is undeniable. Like many young composers, the work owes too great debt to Sondheim-esque grandiosity at times. But most young musicians don't have this kind of talent to back that up. Li’s lyrics are also incredibly mature, carrying delightful rhyme schemes that scan sublimely, punctuating his points without hitting you over the head.

The play starts out smashingly with three knockout numbers that intrigue with the depth lying underneath what initially seem like cardboard characters. I invested in these characters immediately and eagerly waited to see their story unfold. But I was disappointed when the play seemed to veer away from story and character for a confusing commentary on living in comic book Hell that leads in circles.

Artist Alex Toth once said, “I spent the first half of my career learning what to put into my art, and the second half learning what to leave out.” Like all great art, Misprint shines best at its most simple. Halfway though the craziness, the play pauses for a delicate love song revealing the heartbreak of remaining in the background, deftly balancing the humanity of the character with a matching comic book conceit. For a brief, shining moment, I cared about the characters again.

Even with the unfortunate change in direction Misprint never fails to entertain and is worth rushing out to see ASAP. There is a respect for the musical genre and level of craft on display here that is truly rare. Heck, two days later the music is still bouncing in my head.

But these characters and this show could have lived on in our hearts and minds for long after the curtain closed.

I look forward to seeing what comes in Misprint's next issue!

Live the adventure.