Considering that my producing partner Dustin Klein and I have our own Magic Thread Cabaret show, “Les Chanteuses” in the 2019 IndyFringe Theatre Festival. I am limited in the number of shows I can see throughout the run of the festival, but as it turned out, Sunday was an ideal window in which to see works presented by my colleagues. Here are my reviews of three shows, all representing the edginess that Fringe is known for. And what did they all share in common? Pure entertainment.
“It Gets Bitter: The Ron Popp Story” – ComedySportz
I had interviewed Popp for a recent “On the Aisle” profile, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. A graduate of UIndy where he studied theatre, Popp grew up in Fairland, Indiana. He established at the top of the show that he is gay; so much of his material was about his experiences navigating the straight world as gay man. Considering he was playing to a Fringe audience, which is typically made up of liberal-thinking individuals, but in this particular case appeared to be a mostly straight audience, Popp’s jokes were received enthusiastically.
The title of Popp’s show suggests he is going to come off as a stereotypical “bitter queen,” but he was anything but, even when he told self-deprecating jokes about his looks and physique. Describing his experience growing up in rural Indiana, he made fun of people who still worship the confederacy even in adulthood, the religious and commented that his family was poor white trash.
Regarding his life as a gay man, Popp made fun of the homophobic slur, “faggot” and anti-gay protesters who misspell it on their signs. Saying that gay life is not “all sodomy and Sondheim,” Popp poked fun at dating, and specifically, the trouble he had hooking up via dial-up internet chat rooms before Grindr came along.
Delivering his jokes with rapid-fire consistency, Popp elicited laughter from both straights and gay audience members. He talked about his six-year marriage to his spouse and situations that are universal to couples of all sex orientations. Other bits he shared included a joke about free samples of products frequently handed out in Chicago and his embarrassing audition for the musical “Hamilton.”
During his interview with me, Popp confessed that a big challenge for him is reading audiences, but in this instance, I think he did quite well. Again, because Popp, who makes fun of himself as he delivers his comedy in a deadpan style, is so likable, he comes off as an everyman and therefore non-threatening. Consequently, I think his act, though sometimes salacious, would open the mind and even the heart of even the most ardent homophobe.
Popp’s show contains adult language and is only for those 18 and up. His remaining shows are Tuesday, Aug. 20 at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 21 at 6:00 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 24 at 3:00 p.m.
“Vinny the Pooh” – IndyFringe Basile Theatre
There is nothing like Fringe to illustrate the wealth of comic talent in Indianapolis and particularly those who excel at sketch comedy. That observation was reinforced when I saw “Vinny the Pooh,” presented by Approxima Productions, a company with whom I was not familiar, but whose work I hope to see more of in the future.
Proving that nothing is sacred nor off limits in the non-juried, uncensored IndyFringe, “Vinny the Pooh” is a naughty and very hilarious spoof of the “Winnie the-Pooh” collection of stories by English author A.A. Milne.
Directed by Christine Kruze, who also wrote the wacky parody, the characters, to which many of us were introduced as wee ones, are renamed here. They include Stagger (John Kern), Vinny (Steve Kruze), Eyesore (Clay Mabbitt), Christa McBobbin (Morgan Morton), Jowl (Joshua Ramsey), Franga (Carrie Ann Schlatter), and Sniglet (Kelsey VanVoorst).
If you are unfamiliar with Milne’s stories and characters, you will still delight in up-and-coming playwright Kruze’s clever script because of the context she places them in. In her outrageous tale, they are all part of a mob family replete with toxic relationships. I don’t wish to reveal any further details of the story because I want audiences to have no expectations. Actually, the plot is fairly thin, but the antics of the characters, which include a cocaine-sniffing tiger, bisexual pig, donkey with an eye-patch and owl who talks like The Godfather are sufficient to keep you engaged. So much so, that the 50-minute allotment of time simply flies by.
All of the performers, who were fine actors, demonstrated they are also superb comics. Each delivered Kruze’s jokes, sight gags and one-liners with obvious glee, as they exhibited excellent timing and proficiency at physical comedy as well.
I should point out that many of the show’s previously mentioned sight gags are demonstrated in its hilarious costumes and props, which add to the show’s screwball quality.
Adding to the zaniness is the show’s printed program. Not your traditional collection of bios, take some time to enjoy it while you are waiting for the silliness to commence because it definitely sets the tone for the madness and mayhem that follow. This show also has tons of adult language and is only appropriate for ages 16 & up.
Remaining shows for “Vinny the Pooh” are Wednesday, Aug. 21 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Aug. 23, 10:30 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 24, 7:30 p.m.
“Journey To Hell” – The District Theatre
Is there any music genre the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus can’t sing? They were a smash hit in last year’s festival with “Queen Day” and now they’re topping themselves with the testosterone-infused, hard-driving rock and roll, uber-energetic “Journey to Hell.” It’s a tribute to Journey, Styx and several other bands, popular in the 70s and 80s, with a tongue-in cheek theme that celebrates Hell and the Devil himself, an ironic choice really, considering the IMC singers, most of whom are members of the LGTBQ+ community, have souls that are doomed to spend eternity in Lucifer’s kingdom according to the far Christian right. Kudos to the IMC for turning that notion on its head, whether or not it was purposely.
Proving his genius once again was Greg Sanders, the intrepid IMC artistic director and keyboardist of the show’s splendid five-piece band. Responsible for enhancing and expanding IMC’s brand with productions that go way beyond the usual choral fare, Sanders, presumably cast his best singers and it shows. All of them appear as if they have or could perform in musical theatre.
Not only did these guys turn in outstanding vocal performances, belting and using their falsettos like the most seasoned of rockers, they also demonstrated they are accomplished dancers, moving to dynamic choreography that was furious and non-stop. Many of the dances were created by various IMC members, who teach and are show-choir directors.
Sanders, who is also proficient at programming, compiled a set list that thoroughly represents the show’s theme, but also was an ideal showcase for the multi-talents of the ensemble and soloists, who displayed tremendous showmanship. Particularly outstanding was lithe Alex Milligan, who radiated star quality in the Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” giving music icon Mick Jagger a run for his money and also in his poignant rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
Also standing out were Drew Kemp in AC/DC’s “Hells Bells,” Johnnie Taylor in “Too Much Time,” Dawson Raymond in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” Joe Perkins in “Georgia,” and Jerico Hughes in “Come Sail Away.”
For those concerned the show, performed as a concert, might be hard on the ears in the close quarters of The District Theatre’s 120-seat house, I would advise not to worry. Though there were some late sound cues and mixing discrepancies, all of which will no doubt be fixed as the run continues, I found the sound to be not in the least bit oppressive.
Heavy rainstorms may have prevented more Fringers from making it to the show, which was about half full last night, but once word spreads, I predict “Journey to Hell” will be one of the festival’s hottest tickets. It truly represents the wealth of talent that exists in Indianapolis and the creativity and artistic innovation.
Remaining “Journey to Hell” shows are Friday, Aug. 23, at 10:30 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 24, 9:00 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 25 at 1:30 p.m.
For tickets and information about all IndyFringe shows, go to www.indyfringe.org.