BWW Review: Fertile Ground Musicals: VORTEX 1, DISCONNECTED: A FRANKENSTEIN MUSICAL, SIRENS OF COOS BAY
The 10th Anniversary Fertile Ground Festival has reached its final weekend (but there are still plenty of shows to see, many with dates that extend beyond the festival -- check them out here). This year, there was not only a smorgasbord of new works, but several of them were musicals! Last week, I saw three (watch for themes: local Oregon stories, revamps of classics, and 90s throwbacks).
I've never had so much fun at a workshop of a show than I did the night I saw VORTEX 1, a new musical with book and lyrics by Sue Mach and music by Bill Wadhams (of Animotion fame). There was a palpable excitement in the air at Mission Theater. Although I couldn't see how many people raised their hands when Mach asked if anyone had been at the real Vortex 1 event, I'm willing to bet it was a good number.
A brief background: in 1970, the American Legion invited Richard Nixon to be the keynote speaker at their conference in Portland. This was not long after the Kent State shooting, as well as an incident near Portland State University that ended with 31 activists being hospitalized. The FBI and then-Governor Tom McCall were concerned about what might happen when 25,000 Legionnaires and an estimated 50,000 protesters showed up. A small group of activists proposed a state-sponsored music festival in a park, a place where the protesters could gather peacefully. Not knowing what else to do, McCall agreed, even though he thought he was committing political suicide. Vortex 1: A Biodegradable Festival of Life took place in Estacada on August 28 - September 3, 1970. To this day, Oregon is the only state that has ever paid for and sponsored a rock festival.
If you think that sounds like excellent musical material, you're right! The show is awesome (at least the part we got to see): great music, colorful characters, clever dialogue -- everything you could want. It's also a fabulous reminder that the best solutions come from working together. VORTEX 1 is an Oregon story that the country needs to hear -- get this baby to Broadway!
DISCONNECTED: A FRANKENSTEIN MUSICAL
This new musical-in-progress, with book by Gayle Towell and music and lyrics by Chris Rentzel, reimagines Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in the 1990s, which then-President George HW Bush declared the Decade of the Brain. It was a time when we were making major strides in science, but also when the Y2K threat that all computer systems would go down seemed at least plausible.
In DISCONNECTED, Victor becomes Vicky, an ambitious young neuroscience student whose interest in the possibility of merging humans with machines rises to a disturbing intensity when one of her best friends from childhood is injured in a car accident. Yes, that's right -- in this version, Frankenstein's monster is a cyborg.
DISCONNECTED is still in the early stages. The Fertile Ground show was a reading of Act 1 with songs and a very brief preview of Act 2 (though no hint of how it will end). Towell and Rentzel solicited feedback following the performance, and their goal is to present a staged reading of the full show at next year's Fertile Ground.
Overall, I think the concept is brilliant, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the show progresses over the next year.
SIRENS OF COOS BAY
I have no idea how she manages it, but Laura Christina Dunn, along with the other folks at the Broken Planetarium, writes and produces a new musical every year. They workshop it at Fertile Ground and then stage a full world premiere production at the Clinton Street Theater in May. I've seen and enjoyed the last four shows, but this one is on a whole new level.
SIRENS OF COOS BAY transports The Little Mermaid (the original, not the Disney version) to the 1990s Oregon Coast. In this version, the Little Mermaid (LM, played by Rhyan Michele, who is incredible) falls in love with the frontman of a grunge band when she witnesses them rehearsing on a fishing boat. You know the story -- she visits the sea witch to trade her voice for legs, for the chance to be human and find love.
Dunn draws on a wide range of issues -- the conflict between the protecting the environment and developing the economy, addiction and hopelessness, generational clashes, sexism -- to create a show that feels both very Oregon and very 90s, but also universal and of the moment. Also, great grunge-inspired music!
The good news is that, unlike the other two musicals on this list, you can see SIRENS OF COOS BAY now. Well, you can see it in May -- it's running May 9-18 at the Clinton Street Theater.