Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: How I Lost One Pound: The Musical

The first thing to think about when reviewing Fringe is that theatre is made by people with hopes and dreams, and try to weigh that against the vitriol that often emerges when you have an less than enjoyable theatre experience. How I Lost One Pound: The Musical has the very best of intentions of celebrating the bodies and “rock star” qualities of all women (men, this show does not really mention you, except a brief acknowledgment that you may be feeling left out when we’re all asked to look down at our breasts). My heart goes out to everyone involved; it feels like we should be friends, and they all seem like lovely people. I desperately don't want to hurt their feelings. But I will probably wind up doing so, because those feelings just don’t excuse an hour of cliché writing, highly variable performance quality, and three separate composers for five unmemorable songs, two of which are thinly disguised “don’t sue” parodies. It reminds one of how amateurish Fringe can be.

This show is a cabaret, instead of the “one woman’s journey” I was sort of expecting, featuring several performers telling stories about their weight-loss struggles, or generic people’s weight loss struggles. They wear large poufy crinoline-type skirts and scales are tied to their wrists with measuring tape, except for the older woman in the cast who is instead named Scale (Barbara Weigelt). This makes sense later, because her story is about breaking her obsession with the scale, but it looks very strange when they all try to coordinate movements, like it was something the actress was just incapable of doing. The sight gag is cute and inventive, but wears out its welcome as the scales clunk and scrape across the stage (here’s hoping Passe Muraille’s stage doesn’t get scratched up). They remain on wrists for narrative purpose (the women will later triumphantly shed them) but they cause problems with already awkward movement – could they be put on wheels, perhaps?

The material, by Lesley Carlberg, is at its best when there is some specificity to it. In particular, the stories “Diet” (Chiamaka Ugwu) tells about her mother’s crazy invented diets such as the Bikini Diet and the Butter Diet draw laughs, entertaining because her mother is a character with a specific voice, and I don’t just mean in terms of accent. Meagan O’Kelly, “Restaurant,” debases herself amusingly as she talks about eating out of the garbage like a Golden Retriever. Lauren Wolkowski does a nice tough-girl act towards a man she asks not to give back her chocolate, no matter how much abuse she heaps on him, and Michelle Paré and Kate Abrams deliver their moderately amusing clichés with style (though I will admit to laughing at the Fuck-It, rather than Bucket, List).  It is absolutely refreshing to see larger actresses on stage, although I dream of a day that a larger actress can be on stage without the point of her character being that she is large. There is, inexplicably, a “word of the day,” by audience suggestion, that each actor incorporates into her vignette; we are supposed to cheer at each mention of the word to keep ourselves engaged (a bad sign; the material should keep us engaged).

The problems with the show, however, are legion. Like shows such as Menopause: The Musical, it belongs squarely in a community Mississauga dinner theatre having a Monday night “Girls Night Out” special. When it’s not developing specific characters and instead resting on stereotype and “dieting sucks, ladies, am I right?” it falls totally flat. I don’t mean to imply that there is no value in trying to generally connect to an audience, but if I’ve learned anything from theatre, you get better connections with specificity, even specificity that is not exactly like your viewers’ experience, than you do with general cliché because specificity is more human. That’s where the connection actually happens, the humanity, not the knowing wink. It doesn’t help that the musical aspect adds very little to the show; though a couple of parodies are cute, it’s still very soulless. I don’t want to overly malign anyone, though I feel for these women; they’re giving it their all in spite of a tenuous script. But some are really just not natural performers, and there’s some painful line forgetting and fake line readings and some off-key singing. Sometimes I just felt terrible and terribly awkward for a performer. I want them to succeed, but I also don’t want to be put in that position as an audience member.

I skipped out on the ending of a Fringe Club tent “alley play,” The Enchanted Crackhouse, to see this show. Coincidentally, its composer is also one of the composers of this show. Missing the ending and the very informal conditions prevent me from reviewing that show, but it’s a lot more inventive in its silliness, it has better acting and singing, fun puppets and design concepts, and an actual small band with a theremin, unlike the pre-recorded music these actresses sing to.  This is a valiant effort, but it’s not audience-ready yet, though I have a feeling it will have a nice life in dinner theatre.


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