There is no typical Fringe show. Some are experimental, some are predictable; some are triumphs, some are failures. I heard someone suggest that Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s musical revue Don’t Make Me Pull This Show Over might be too polished for the Fringe. I disagree. To me, the Cincinnati Fringe is about reveling in the many ways theater can work. And this show works.
The show about the joys and sorrows of parenting has A-list credentials. Ace, a 2006 Cincinnati Playhouse hit by Oberacker, a Cincinnati native and CCM grad, and Taylor seems headed for Broadway. This production of their latest work is staged by Richard Hess, CCM drama chair, and it marks the fourth consecutive year that a show he’s directed has been a top Fringe draw. (Previous hits have been Don’t Look Down in 2005, both (UN)Natural Disaster and The Catholic Girl’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity in 2006 and last year’s The Kid in the Dark.) Music direction is by Terry LaBolt, former CCM professor and Broadway conductor.
Each cast member could handle a starring role — Charlie Clark (who also has his own solo show in this year’s Fringe); Jessica Hendy and Gina Valentine (both CCM grads with Broadway experience, and both about to re-start their run of The Great American Trailer Park Musical at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati); Michael Shawn Starks (whose next gig is Satan in New Stage Collective’s Jerry Springer: The Opera this summer) and Kate Wilford (who’s been a standout at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and Ensemble Theatre). Such an ensemble offers the promise of great things.
That’s exactly what the oversold audience expected at Wednesday’s opening night performance, and that’s exactly what they got. Standing ovations don’t mean much any more, it seems to me, but the one prompted by this show was perhaps the most spontaneous and heartfelt I’ve seen in a long time.
Whether or not you’re a parent yourself, you have parents of your own and you know people who’ve experienced parenthood. So this show’s 18 songs hit home by running the gamut from birth to not quite death and covering an emotional spectrum from pride to frustration, from relief to grief. The opening ensemble number, “Not Me,” is about the shock of imminent parenthood, and the quick sequel, “I Need Sleep,” re-creates a phenomenon everyone knows. That’s followed by “Because I Said So,” the show’s most hilarious number, marking those outbursts we heard our parents say and vowed we’d never repeat — then find ourselves spouting, afflicted with “parental Tourette’s.” In “I Had a Freakin’ Box,” Clark and Starks compare the simple amusements of their youths with today’s distractions, especially video games.
But Oberacker and Taylor’s songs don’t merely provoke laughter. Some are somber: “Do You Know,” sung by Hendy to a father who’s had a son, or Wilford’s “Against the Glass,” a take on the first days of motherhood. Wilford has the show’s most electrifying song, “This Is Still My Country,” portraying an angry Muslim mother defending her daughter who has been singled out by a public school teacher for not being Christian. Starks sings the show’s most painful number, “God Bless,” a lengthy monologue portraying the anger and guilt felt by a man whose son has been overtaken by instability and homelessness.
But the show keeps its balance, thanks to Hess’s simple staging and the varied, clever material. I especially liked two rueful, amusing numbers — “I Don’t Have the Right,” sung by Hendy, about a mother who finds a stash of dope in her daughter’s underwear drawer but can’t quite condemn behavior she herself played out in her youth, and “What Took You So Long,” in which Valentine is a mother whose gay son finally comes out, offering information she’s known for years.
The show’s tender conclusion offers “Reversal,” with Wilford singing about the emotional challenge of tending to a dying parent and “In the End,” a paean to the potential every parent sees in his or her children.
The return of Don’t Make Me Pull This Show Over has already been announced as the final production of Ensemble Theatre’s 2008-2009 season (April 29-May 17, 2009), and I suspect it will evolve between now and then. It’s a tad long, and the acoustics at Know Theatre (the Fringe venue) aren’t perfect — LaBolt’s accomplished piano playing occasionally overpowered the singers.
I think it needs a new title, too: This one is unwieldy and emphasizes only one dimension of the multi-faceted work. Based on opening night, however, I have no doubt this is one of the hits of the 2008 Fringe; the limited number of performances means tickets will be scarce.
— Rick Pender