Review: History is Musicalized at Capital Fringe With RAIN FOLLOWS THE PLOW and ROMANOV

By: Jul. 10, 2016

As I scoured the Capital Fringe listings for 2016, two shows caught my interest. While both RAIN FOLLOWS THE PLOW and ROMANOV both musicalize moments in history and showcase some serious songwriting skills and musicianship, they couldn't be more different from one another stylistically. While there is considerable room for both shows to grow, a future life for both of them is definitely possible due to the strong central concepts, creativity and musical bases.

RAIN FOLLOWS THE PLOW (Courtesy of Capital Fringe website)

Stephen R. Coffee's RAIN FOLLOWS THE PLOW is probably one of the more unique offerings in this year's festival, mainly because there's nothing quirky about it. More than a dozen talented local musicians share the story of the worst man-made ecological disaster that America has experienced to date - the 1930s Dust Bowl. Director Bill Davis narrates the story, and Coffee's rich and earthy folksy songs (several of which he co-wrote) introduce us to people who experienced the disaster firsthand - brought to the Plains by the great promise for a better life that they provided - and others that inhabited their ever-changing world (a Native American, for example). While the production would benefit from smoother transitions, a stronger ending, and a narrator with more advanced and interesting storytelling skills - and perhaps a co-writer with theatrical experience - there's no denying the strength of Coffee's songs and the musicians tasked with bringing them to life.

While most of the musicians in the show aren't what I would call strong vocalists, their instrumental skills and level of comfort showcasing them makes this production a most enjoyable one. The show is a veritable jam session and a fun one at that.

Caroline Ferrante (Ruth) makes the strongest vocal impression, and is probably is the best suited to relying stories and emotions in a natural, organic way. Her crystal clear voice and no kidding lyric interpretation skills made "Impossible Sky" and "Can It Be?" two of the highlights for me. John Keating (Billy) showcases a similar level of skill on "Black Sunday."

If this production is to have a future life in a theatrical context, the creators might consider dividing up the "singing" and "playing" duties, and present the show in a way that plays to everyone's strengths. For example, while several of the guitarists are clearly comfortable playing the guitar, they aren't necessarily as comfortable singing the music, and using the lyrics to their advantage to tell a story in a way that's particularly interesting. This is unfortunate because several of these musicians take vocal lead on at least one song.

Still, this show is most definitely recommended. The Dust Bowl is a historical event that's worthy of theatricalization, and Coffee and company have a good start on that front. I look forward to what the future might hold for this show and hope that it can realize its full potential.

ROMANOV (Courtesy of Capital Fringe website)

While audiences definitely aren't going to find rich and earthy "Americana" songs in Danny Baird and Meghan Stanton's ROMANOV, the cast and creative team exhibits a similar level of skill. Baird - who took on the history of feminism in last year's GIRL VS. CORINTH - is back again for this year's Capital Fringe. This time, he and Meghan Stanton (co-book writer and lyricist) take on a subject that has - to some small extent - been musicalized before although most certainly not in this way. It's been years since their unfortunate death, but the Romanova sisters - the offspring of the last Emperor of Russia, Czar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra - are back with their brother Alexei (Danny Baird) to give an electro-pop concert (aided by Kelly Colburn's vivid projections) that explains the downfall of the Romanov family from their perspective. Anastasia (Allie O'Donnell), Marie (Meghan Stanton), Tatiana (Alicia Osborn), and Olga (Catherine Purcell) tell us about their childhood and how their parents tried to shield them from the pressures of being royal. They're very different from one another and bicker and argue like your typical siblings, but they have one thing in common. In addition to handling the pressure of their last name, they all have to deal with a brother who receives special treatment, not only because of his future role in leading Russia, but also because he has a serious illness (Hemophilia - Alexei sings a LONG song about it). The Revolution kind of sneaks up on them, and they admit that they weren't really paying attention to the signs that change was afoot ("Rasputin and the Revolution"), and that Rasputin would eventually play an integral role in the family's downfall, and eventually, murder.

While the 45-minute piece could benefit from a dramaturg to move the story along and present it in a cohesive and logical way, I give enormous kudos to Baird and Stanton for their creativity, and willingness to take on a challenge. The production is also blessed with enormously talented vocalists - particularly the four females - more than able to bring Baird's interesting and at times complex music to life. The women command the stage during each of their solos and achieve a wonderful harmonic blend when singing together. While Baird's diction and vocal skills weren't quite at the level of the others on opening night -and his spoken sections proved virtually unintelligible - he was appropriately self-absorbed as Alexei, more than ready to steal the spotlight from his sisters.

In the interest of full disclosure, on opening night enormous technical troubles plagued the performance from start to finish. There were no lights or sound, and at one point a cast member got smart and turned on work lights so the audience could at least see the performers (thank goodness). Even through all of that, I could appreciate the talent of those involved and the promise of the show with more work. That's not always the case.

Running Times: RAINS FOLLOWS THE PLOW is 80 minutes and ROMANOV is 45 minutes.

See the Capital Fringe website for ticket information and show schedules for RAIN FOLLOWS THE PLOW and ROMANOV.