It’s been challenging trying to figure out the best way to talk about Gnarly Bard Theater Company and their current new musical theater offering, “Tales From The Fiefdom.” It’s challenging because everyone involved in the production is really talented, but the story structure of the musical isn’t giving them much to work with.
“Tales From The Fiefdom” is a collection of a dozen songs in wildly different musical styles, which really shows off the range and craft of Bubba Holly and Louie Opatz who wrote the musical. The lyrics are clever, the tunes are very catchy. Director Mike Mellas stages the whole production skillfully and keeps the pace moving right along, making good use of the ensemble cast and the Crane Theater space. Lighting designer Noah Davis backs Mellas up by creating multiple locations and moods on the largely bare stage just by varying the amount and intensity of illumination. And property masters Jerry McMurray and Brittany Miller not only outfit the central location of the apothecary shop with a lot of fun details, we get some genuine prop comedy laughs - like the knight whose sword gets bigger, and bigger, and BIGGER every time he reappears onstage after disappearing ever so briefly for a line or two during a song. With all that, plus the sheer number of characters seven of the cast members need to play in just an hour and a half, sometimes with elaborate costume changes, stage manager Meghan Gunderson ably keeps all those balls in the air throughout. The stagecraft on everyone’s part here is unquestioned.
(Even the poster artist made a big splash. Apologies for not being able to find their name online, I should have made a note of it in the lobby. The artist for the poster created a whole gallery filling the lobby with frames full of large colorful art inspired by the show in the same style as the primary poster image. Stunning work.)
“Tales From The Fiefdom” wants to be a slice of medieval life. Nicole Wilder as the apothecary is the only member of the cast who remains the same character from start to finish. Everyone else in the ensemble (Madison Fairbanks, Meri Golden, Bubba Hollenhorst, Ryan Huxford, Megan Kim, Clare Rollinger, and Haley Sisler-Neuman) each plays a whole grab bag of roles - peasants, knights, priests, bartenders, witches, horses, you name it. Everyone has to be ready to switch gears from one scene to the next and they do it all at full throttle. Their energy appears boundless and their ability to create a host of different characters with just a costume change (sometimes fairly simple ones) is pretty impressive. So why don’t I love this show? Why isn’t it 5 stars if there’s so much talent being thrown at the wall?
The storytelling handicap here, that the production never quite overcomes, is that there is no single story or plot thread that carries through from the beginning to the end of the play. The basic conceit is that each character passes through the apothecary’s medieval pharmacy, looking for a cure that the apothecary can’t really provide to their largely existential problems. The one guiding notion of the musical is that life in feudal times really sucked. The closing number is a reprise of the opening number, where the full cast is “just trying to get by.” So essentially at the end of the show nothing has changed, we’re right back where we started. Circular plots aren’t necessarily bad. This one just has the circular part of that equation down but doesn’t really offer much in the way of a plot in between the start and finish. A plot development or character development is always just on the verge of happening, over and over again, but never does. I’m not saying you can’t have a successful play or musical that’s made up of simple character vignettes, but they have to add up to something.
The musical also seems to want to have almost every moment three different ways - it wants us to laugh, it wants us to feel, AND it wants us to think - but it doesn’t focus long enough to earn it. The whole evening seems to be going for a very “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” kind of attitude but it doesn’t fully commit to the bit and go over the top the whole time. That movie was irreverent and absurd from start to finish, insulted quite literally everyone and everything, and ended up making some clever commentary on things like war, politics and the notion of sanity while it was about it. “Tales From The Fiefdom” wants you to laugh at the death of children and the conscription of child soldiers in the opening scene, but then also wants you to feel genuinely bad about how terrible the tavern owner’s business is doing (“Another Empty Alehouse”). Not that her children are dead or in mortal peril, but that her customer base has fallen off. In the very next scene we think we’re getting a funny drunk (problematic as that trope may be) but then we learn the reason he’s getting drunk is because the “Pleasant Peasant” keeps witnessing genocide-level events as he travels the countryside - and his wife and kids are “missing” and his whole town is burned to the ground when he gets home. But don’t worry, these two characters won’t bum you out and ruin the evening because you never see them again. That holds true for almost every other character that’s introduced. And almost every other plot point that gets rolled out with each new vignette. Stories don’t end, they just stop.
“Tales From The Fiefdom” mostly stays in period with only the occasional anachronism for a joke in dialogue now and again. But then about three-quarters of the way through it abandons that pretense entirely as well and takes an abrupt left turn into an alternate universe version of the musical “Oklahoma.” Suddenly, for no good reason, people are dressing and talking like they’re ready for country western night - and singing like it, too. There were genuine howls of laughter from the audience when the daughter in the family sang a stirring power ballad about not wanting to sh*t in a “Bucket” anymore. And then we’re treated to a memorial in song for their horse “Buttercup” who they had to kill for food, followed quickly by a perky little ditty that claims the horse tastes like chicken. But after eating the horse, country western dad isn’t feeling well, so he goes to the apothecary who has both good and bad news for him - he doesn’t have indigestion, he has the “Plague!” Cue the full ensemble upbeat musical number about his imminent death - with a record scratch moment when they mention a vaccine and then have the obligatory sidebar with a science denier and - honestly, too soon. For all of that.
To be honest, a previous draft of this review ran through all the songs, but I realized it was turning into a plot summary style review, for a show with no discernible plot, and that seemed less than useful. I did try to keep willing a plot onto the production as I watched it, but “Tales From the Fiefdom” strenuously resists this way to engage the piece so… points for consistency of purpose? If you go just wanting to see well-staged, really good performances of a string of catchy tunes mostly set in medieval times, you will likely be quite satisfied. If you go expecting more than that, like me, you will be frustrated. The creators of “Tales From The Fiefdom” had a reason for doing this, maybe something they wanted to say. I wish I could tell you what it was.
For what it’s worth, everyone in the audience around me was having a great time. Not a typical musical theater crowd that night, they didn’t clap after every single song, which sometimes made for awkward silences. But they were definitely there to laugh, and they laughed a lot, more and more as the show went on.
I want to see something else by Gnarly Bard Theater Company. Because new musicals are hard, and they obviously love them, and do them well. “Tales From The Fiefdom” gets a better production than it probably deserves here. I want to see Gnarly Bard get the really good musical it deserves, and watch them knock it out of the park. For now, “Tales From The Fiefdom” will have to do.
Gnarly Bard Theater’s production of “Tales From The Fiefdom” concludes its run this weekend at the Crane Theater (2303 Kennedy St. NE in Minneapolis) - Friday 11/11 and Saturday 11/12/2022 at 7pm, Sunday 11/13/2022 at 2pm.
3 stars - Recommended
(Poster image courtesy of Gnarly Bard Theater Company)