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Mini-Reviews: Cincinnati Fringe

My first batch of Cincinnati Fringe – home of the new and different at venues across Over-the-Rhine - hasn’t delivered The Big Wow, but there’s a lot to like. (I own that three of these are among my top picks this year, and I still think they’ll be near the favorites when Fringe ends June 11.

All the shows I’ve seen are ambitious, they are produced with care and there are some stand-out performances. The camaraderie is a big part of the fun -- while you’re hanging in line (or strolling around Over-the-Rhine), you’ll find yourself in conversations about what you’ve seen and what you think and you’ll get plenty of recommendations on what not to miss.

OK, here we go (in alphabetical order):

Cessna: A Drama Noir

It’s a noir-y, fantasy – set to live music! - take on an honest-to-goodness local headline story from December, 1982, when a small plane carrying FBI agents and confessed embezzler Carl Johnson crashed into a bookstore in Montgomery. The show even has projections and an audio to pull us into the story. It’s a class act, demonstrating meticulous oversight by Joshua Steele.

Cessna is scripted by Mike Hall (who plays an obsessed FBI guy) and Steele, and they also provide the evocative jazz score. You can’t ask for better than Greg Procaccino to direct and Michael Bath to be center stage, here showcasing his talents in multiple roles as the shaggy dog tale is framed as taking place in the moody ‘40s. (Or else I wish I’d been in Cincy in the ‘80s…)

Along with the obsessed FBI agent, there’s a seductive dame, a probably crooked cop and a multitude of characters played by Bath. All of it is accompanied by a first-rate combo, led by local theater’s music man Steve Goers on keyboard with Michael Dudley (trumpet) and Justin Dawson (bass)

The Cessna script captures the noir tone, but it needs surprises, not just the beloved clichés. I’m applauding an impressive effort, even with the ending that has that “how are we going to end this?’" feeling. 

Be prepared: Cessna is at 17 E. Court Street which isn’t air-conditioned. (Hungry? Don’t miss huit, a couple of doors down.)

SHEnatra!

The high concepts just get higher! Proud womanizers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin are in purgatory (a.k.a. Coffee Emporium’s old roasting room), trapped in women's bodies and performing a lounge act to get themselves out of here. The audience decides if their new-found (and still shaky) sensitivity sends them Up – or Down.

Song parodies are set to the guys’ greatest hits (“Fly Me to the Moon,” “New York, New York,” “That’s Amore”) with female-centric lyrics and a lot of them are plenty clever. Let’s sing body image (“When I was 17, I had a very good rear…”), the biological clock ticks away to the tune of “Luck, Be a Lady Tonight” and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud lyrics that point out male chauvinism is alive and well.  

Donna Kay Yarborough is terrific as Frank, but engaging as she is, Sadie Bowman has the swagger but not the doesn’t-give-a-damn bon vivant of old Dino. As with last year’s delightful “Haydell Sisters,” they’re a solid musical comedy team.

They give a few minutes over to an old-fashioned celebrity roast that doesn’t work and I kind of wish they’d taken one more run at a an uneven script to make it killer.

The Unrepentant Necrophile

The Coldharts (Nick Ryan and Katie Hartman) return after last year’s delightfully nasty Edgar Allan with a gothic rock-driven sketch inspired by a 1978 interview with necrophile Karen Greenlee, who worked in a mortuary and had one- (or two-) night stands with corpses.

Necrophile is filled with you’ll-remember-it imagery, but their fiction can’t touch the facts of the case (check it out here: http://www.nokilli.com/sacto/karen-greenlee.htm).  

The Coldharts present – and I say this loosely – a love triangle (with Hartman in the title role.) It’s delightfully unsettling, and could have been a lot more so if they’d bored in a little, but they’re concentrating on the pounding songs that Hartman belts out in an impressive wail.   

At the performance I saw, she had a love-hate relationship with her mic, moving away from it often enough that too many lyrics in what is a pounding, morbid musical score were lost. I get that her character would talk in a mumble when she isn’t singing – but the audience still needs to hear what she’s saying.

We Did It, Girl!

Torie Wiggins and Kevin Crowley deliver a two-hander about a blind date via website Christian Hook-Up. She’s black, he’s a racist. Crowley is also the playwright, and he finds rude comedy in age-old prejudice, current events and inventive ‘what ifs.’

But Girl! slides into preachy before we come to the very satisfactory end (which is probably meant to be a surprise). Crowley the playwright takes on the age-old problem of how you keep a character who wants to be elsewhere from leaving the room (and ending the play), but he makes a good run at it. Director Reggie Willis could have sharpened things a little more.

Hey, it’s Fringe, Wiggins and Crowley are worth watching and there’s a comic gem moment that has her doing a solid rendition of “Midnight Train to Georgia” with Crowley’s obtuse character singing and ‘dancing’ back-up.

Cincinnati Fringe Festival, through June 11. Know Theatre, 1212 Jackson St. and venues throughout Over-the-Rhine. Tickets $15. All-access pass $225, six-ticket flex-pass $70, one-night stand pass for two tickets and a drink at Know’s bar, $30. 513-300-5669, www.cincyfringe.com and during Fringe in person at the Fringe box office, or at individual venues 30 minutes prior to show times, depending on availability.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts