FRINGE REVIEW: AFRICA AND PLUMBRIDGE

September 1
8:36 PM 2004

As Ellen Craft, another musical premiering at the Fringe, attempted to do, Africa and Plumbridge tried to solve a major problem in American musical theatre: the lack of musicals about African-Americans, the lack of musicals about women, and the lack of musicals written by women. And bravo to the creators of both of these musicals for taking on these deficiencies with such gusto. The problem is that it's pointless to have musicals written by or about women or African-Americans if the musicals aren't good. Ellen Craft had its weaknesses, but showed great promise. Africa and Plumbridge, unfortunately, does not overcome its many problems.

Based on a true story, the plot, sort of an neo-urban Annie, follows a young orphan (the titular Africa) as she tries to find love and a family (with the titular Sharon Plumbridge). It isn't exactly original, but it doesn't need to be. Annie is a sweet fairy-tale, and it would be great to have a new variation on the theme that speaks to the jaded youth of today. And if the story is true, so much the better. Unfortunately, this show does not do justice to the true story at its base. The unoriginal music is bland, the unoriginal lyrics are trite, and the unoriginal book is clichéd. The musical looks and sounds as generic and plastic as a special by the latest pop-tart on VH1. Indeed, one character tells Africa that she could be "on that American Idiolatry show!" I think it was even meant to be a compliment.

The score by Sue Carey and Karena Mendoza seems to consist of two songs– an upbeat, major-key song for the happy moments, and a slow, minor-key song for the more introspective ones. All of the music is minor variations on these two themes, and while generic pop isn't necessarily bad, two-and-a-half hours of it gets dull. The lyrics are just as bad, banal to a fault, with predictable rhymes of the "moon/June" variety (or, more specifically, "attics/manics"). Theatrical rock music can be intelligent and clever, but one would not know it from this score, which seems to have been written only to give some very good singers the chance to belt and wail.

The book by Jim Brochu (who doubled as director) is just as problematic, illogical, and inconsistent. Underaged children can, apparently, be whisked out of state without any paperwork being filed. They also show up at church functions in revealing attire and dance provocatively, all while being supervised by a loving nun. The climactic courtroom scene only had me wondering if Mr. Brochu had ever actually stepped foot inside a courtroom, or seen an episode of Law and Order. Disbelief can, and should, be suspended for musicals, especially for fairy tales. However, if we are to have a gritty urban angle to this fairy tale, the verisimilitude needs to be consistent throughout.

The cast, fortunately, rises above the material to deliver some very nice performances. The always reliable and delightful Liz McConahay finds some life in the blandly-written Sharon Plumbridge, and makes the character sympathetic and intriguing. Janeece Aisha Freeman seems a little lost as Africa, but sings quite beautifully. The ensemble, many of them young teenagers themselves (and how refreshing to have teens playing teens!) deserves much credit for lifting the show several levels by their pure energy. The passion they put into their singing and dancing is very admirable, and I truly wish I could have seen such a good cast in a better-written show. They deserve better material to display their many talents.

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