These days, still waiting for the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic to fully subside, I need a really good reason to leave the house, even fully vaccinated, boosted and with a mask on.
Fearless 5: Music from Fearless Comedy Productions is a good reason to leave the house and experiment with attending live theater again. I’m very glad I went. Both logistically and artistically, it’s well worth your attention.
“I want to feel those apples, Sven!”
Each year Fearless Comedy Productions commissions five playwrights to write a short play on a common theme. (I saw their Dreams showcase of new work back in early 2020 - just before, you know… - and really enjoyed it). Any theater willing to encourage new work into existence is OK in my book, before we even get into discussing the work itself. This year’s theme is Music. This year’s playwrights are Denzel Belin, Angela Fox, Kelvin Hatle, Kayla Sotebeer, and Tim Wick. Nobody had to write a musical but three of them did. The other two were, shall we say, “musical adjacent.” All them are, each in their own way, a kind of love letter to the creative impulse, exploring why people make music, and theater.
“They say the secret ingredient is love - which, like, barf.”
This “art about artists” genre normally isn’t my thing, but here it really hooked me. This may be partly due to the fact that Fearless 5: Music is the first live theater I’ve chosen to see in almost two years - I may have been missing the live theater experience even more than I realized. But I should also give credit where it’s due. It’s not just circumstance. Fearless 5: Music is also just really charming, sometimes even adorable. These stories aren’t about just “art for art’s sake,” they’re all about humans pushing themselves to create something - and how that attempt changes them. It’s hard not to like this show, even in its sometimes less successful moments, because all the stories are about people who are trying their best. So you end up rooting for these characters - and the artists creating them, on and off stage.
“Unless you’ve got a thing for vinegar and tears.”
All five plays utilize the same very hard-working set of seven actors: Michael Bloom, Caleb Cabiness, Mackenzie Diggins, Joy Ford, Blair Kott (who’s also the choreographer), Adrienne Reich, and Emma Tiede. All of them are in at least three of the five plays, a couple are in four of them, and a couple are in all five (phew). In several cases, they’re also playing multiple roles within the same short play so these actors get a real workout, and everyone gets their big moments in the spotlight over the course of the night. It must have been tricky to balance the evening that way, for directors, writers, actors and producers alike, so an extra nod for degree of difficulty there, because it makes for a more satisfying audience experience, too. (Don’t even ask me how they managed to arrange a rehearsal schedule for all five of these scripts at the same time to land on the same opening night - the mind boggles.)
“She’s not a very good actor because her evil is showing.”
The real standout here is “No Small Parts,” written by Angela Fox, and directed by Cara White, which the Fearless Comedy folks saved for the big closer of the evening. It’s the one play of the five that I immediately want to see developed into a full play. (If all five of the plays were at this level, the overall evening would be rated 5 stars, not just 4.5). “No Small Parts” is about a group of people putting on a musical called “Hills of Love” but it’s told entirely from the point of view of the actors playing the supporting roles (sort of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Putting on a Production of the Sound of Music”). Our lead/supporting characters are Bernice (Adrienne Reich) aka Crowd Member #3 and her friend Betty (Emma Tiede), who are both really excited that Betty has finally landed a role with an actual name, even if that name is just Mrs. Smith. Bernice and Betty are our guides to the effort it takes, even when you’re not the person who’s ever in the spotlight. In many ways, it’s the most human of the five plays because it’s not dealing with the stars, it’s dealing with the most ordinary of people, the ones you maybe don’t remember, but who nonetheless help populate the world of any play and make it real.
“Unlike ‘Pericles,’ the sonnets have a lot of subtext.”
The music in “No Small Parts” is also the most successful of the whole evening. There’s a genuinely hilarious song about being an alto voice in a world where sopranos get all the attention, the melody line, and way more notes to sing. There’s also a running gag about the music director character (Joy Ford) making “Sound of Music” jokes that none of the cast members understand or laugh at (but I did). And the closing musical number, “No Small Parts,” really stuck the landing by doing something you wouldn’t think was all that revelatory, but it really gave me goosebumps. Multi-part harmony, live, in front of me. The rest of the cast is singing the theme song to “Hills of Love” while Bernice is singing the chorus to “No Small Parts” and the way all the voices and all the notes collide together and blend - it’s such a simple thing but it was really beautiful. The whole ensemble of seven is involved in this one and it’s really nicely done, small parts and not so small parts alike.
“Something perfect for the mature 14-year-olds we are.”
The second half of the evening after intermission overall is a bit stronger than the first half. The other play after the break is a close second for my favorite for the evening, Denzel Belin’s “Westbook Middle School is Proud to Present its Fall Musical which Opens Tomorrow for General Audiences,” directed by Duck Washington. Belin has created the backstage world of a school production of “Mortgage, The Musical” - and music director Chad Dutton (always visible on stage throughout the evening playing keyboard accompaniment, and his own human version of a running gag serving each play as needed) had great fun playing background music for a bunch of songs that are very close to but not quite songs from the musical “Rent.” This musical amusement continues throughout, while star player Aiden (Michael Bloom) and stage manager Conrad (Caleb Cabiness) flirt and moon over each other like the smitten, horny teenagers they are, and often forget there’s a performance that needs their attention on the other side of the curtain. This is one of the sweetest, most human relationships we get to see all night, so it’s nice how unapologetically queer it is.
“There are no small parts. Be the lightning!”
Backstage at Westbook Middle School is also sadly the one place the audience is reminded that there’s a pandemic going on because, pre-2020, there would have been a couple of instances of kissing between Aiden and Conrad. But, it’s post-2020, so these moments are artfully staged to conceal any actual physical contact of lips. It’s the suggestion of kissing, rather than actual kissing. They do what they can - it’s just a bit sad that this is where we are, probably for a while yet, in terms of human intimacy onstage. Reich and Tiede are back in this short as well, as another sort of couple/non-couple. The trajectory of their relationship, such as it is, is a bit more confusing and a bit less grounded, than the two guys, so it’s the less successful pairing. The first couple gets more stage time, though, so it’s more of a shortcoming of limited time than anything the actors are doing with the characters. If the piece in its next incarnation were longer, I think these young ladies backstage would also get their full due.
The first half of the evening consists of three shorts:
“The Second Annual Upper Midwest Vegan Ribfest” - written by Kelvin Hatle; directed by Jason Kruger
and “Macbeth: The Musical” - written by Tim Wick; directed by David Rand-McKay
“I know how to play augmented chords now, you wouldn’t understand.”
“The Bard” is an anachronistic mini-musical focused on a traveling troubadour of times gone by (Caleb Cabiness) surrounded by an assortment of past lovers (the other six members of the ensemble), trying to find his “true voice” and being led astray temporarily by a bartender with fuzzy ulterior motives (Joy Ford) who insists he needs to be sad and edgy to be a real artist.
“Vegans are not into irony.”
“If they were, they’d eat meat.”
“The Second Annual Upper Midwest Vegan Ribfest” is a deftly written tale of a trio of musicians coming back together one more time (one last time?) for a gig at the titular vegan ribfest. The leader of the band (Cabiness again) is perpetually late but still sure their band Wild Sky is always one performance away from really catching on, even though their days of putting out an EP and being “the opening act for the opening act for Soungarden” are long behind them and they’re all stumbling through whatever day jobs they landed in (that they never thought they’d stick with all this time). The bass guitarist (Bloom again) is an easy-going guy who’s just happy to be wherever he is and doesn’t really trouble himself with worrying about fame or success. The drummer (Tiede again) questions what the hell they think they’re doing, and what they ever thought they were doing before. It’s a funny, slightly melancholy character study of three people who’ll never be famous, and still don’t know when to quit, and maybe they never should. Because there’s something about trying, and not giving up, that’s almost… noble?
“I like to call it ‘Murder Castle’”
“Macbeth: The Musical” is exactly what the title would lead you to expect - and then not at all what the title would lead you to expect. A playwright (Tiede again) has created a musical adaptation which she calls “Scottish Play, the Musical” for which a director (Reich again), a stage manager (Mackenzie Diggins) and the two lead actors (Bloom again, and Blair Kott) all gather in someone’s living room for a first rehearsal. They also refer repeatedly to the onstage musical director Chad, but always cut him off just before he’s allowed to speak. There’s a lot of inside jokes about theater, Shakespeare, musicals, and even Vincent Price’s horror revenge flick “Theater of Blood” (which, as a theater critic, I should be wary of). The opening number of the musical is an inspired bit of silliness in which, among other things, Kott is required to perform the roles of Lady Macbeth AND the Three Witches AND Banquo, all at the same time. Reich gets three goofy costumes and three very weird character turns in the space of just a few minutes so she takes the material and runs with it.
“You know what bothers me?! ‘Coriolanus’ set in a bicycle shop!”
Members of the cast do introductions of each piece to help cover the necessary scene shifts between each play. The set is often just an assortment of chairs, a table, occasionally a rolling clothes rack. The logistics of making this thing run so smoothly are impressive, so hats off to the stage manager Jason Stone, light and sound designer Dan Ruby, and producer Jason Kruger - and of course the full ensemble of actors, the directors, and the music director - for keeping this thing rolling right along.
“I feel like a brought a lot of life to Whore #2.”
Even with three doses of Pfizer vaccine in my bloodstream and a ready supply of N95 masks, it takes a lot to get me out the door these days other than my job or grocery shopping. I have missed theater terribly, but haven’t always been convinced it’s a good idea to gather (or encourage others to gather through writing reviews like this). So I have to thank Fearless Comedy Productions for giving me the excuse I needed to end my theater drought. There were many times throughout the evening I was just watching a play again, and not worried about the circumstances, or even aware I was doing this while wearing a mask. Fearless 5: Music was a long overdue bit of escape. And you can’t ask much more from theater than that.
Fearless 5: Music runs through February 26, 2022 at the Historic Mounds Theater, 1029 Hudson Road in St. Paul, MN.
4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended
Please note: The Mounds Theatre requires proof of a full course of COVID-19 vaccination. Patrons must have a completed COVID-19 vaccination card, with their final dose at least fourteen days prior to the event. Attendees must wear masks inside the venue while not eating or drinking.
Proof of vaccination may include a physical card or a photo of a complete vaccination card that matches the patron ID.
(Cast photo, clockwise from bottom left: Emma Tiede, Blair Kott, Mackenzie Diggins, Michael Bloom, Adrienne Reich, and Caleb Cabiness [not pictured, Joy Ford]; photo by Dan Norman; Fearless 5 logo by Chris Rodriguez)