by Gail M. Burns, August 2007

After a few weeks run as a workshop production not open to review, Barrington Stage Company and Musical Theatre Lab mentor William Finn have decided that Kirsten Childs’ Funked Up Fairy Tales is ready for prime time. They have extended the run to August 18 and invited in the press. And this is a good thing.

Running a brisk and frisky 100 minutes, Funked Up Fairy Tales is both exactly what you expect and completely unexpected. People have been having fun with universally known stories for centuries. For my generation it was the Fractured Fairy Tales segment on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Locally the Panto-Loons continue the grand tradition of the British Panto in which folktales are cheerfully skewered every November on the stage of the Ghent Playhouse. Stephen Sondheim’s darker look at classic fairy tales Into the Woods is performed all over the country by professional, amateur and educational theatres. With so many delightful and successful efforts in this genre, my biggest question was, do we need another? What can Childs and director Kevin Del Aguila do that is sufficiently new and different to warrant plunking down money for yet another foray into foolish fairy-dom?

The happy news is – a lot. The combination of Childs’ REALLY novel and catchy score and lyrics, an outstanding cast, and a selection of three folktales – The Pig Prince from Italy, Tam Lin from Scotland, and the Grimms’ tale Rumpelstiltskin – of which only the latter suffers from over-exposure here in the West, make Funked Up Fairy Tales a fresh and funny romp in the enchanted forest.

Alas, because of its subject matter, this will not be the show that makes Childs the next big thing in American musical theatre, but that show will come along sooner rather than later, and in the meantime this is a delightful little piece that gives a tantalizing taste of great things to come. And it truly fulfills the goals set forth by BSC’s Musical Theatre Lab – to discover and nurture exciting new talent in this field.

Now I know that we critics often write about new plays or musicals in such glowing terms, and this should be a lesson to me NOT to do that as frequently as I do because when a truly new and unique talent like Childs comes along it is hard to make it clear that this really is something exciting. And timing has a lot to do with it. For instance had I seen Funked Up Fairy Tales before I saw Party Come Here it would have been glaringly obviously which was the hot new must-see musical of the Berkshire summer season. There is simply no comparison between Childs’ music and lyrics and the predictable and often derivative work of Daniel Goldfarb and David Kirschenbaum.

I have to say that initially the prospect of reviewing a show entitled Funked Up Fairy Tales (a new title is needed FAST, the dangers in this one are obvious) which turned The Pig Prince in K-Pig, Tam Lin into Tammi-Lynn, and, horror of horrors, Rumpelstiltskin into Mistah Skin was not appealing. And it is this very au courant topicality that will date this little gem very, very quickly. I would guess it will look and sound decidedly geeky to the young audience at which it is aimed within 18 months.

But for right now it is all right on and lots of fun, especially as presented by a talented and racially diverse young cast of five. Heath Calvert, who is both very, very handsome and very, very funny, plays the Handsome Prince roles. The sinuous Demond Green gets to play a few royal roles, but his standout turn comes in Mistah Skin when he doubles as sissified Lord High Chamberlain and the extremely evil and slightly dyslexic title character.

The three stories are held together by the tale of three magical fairies – Magikwanda (Alysha Umphress), Faireetheeya (Rashidra Scott), and Titania (Christy McIntosh) – who are out to get their Happy Ending Tiaras. The three actresses also appear in other roles throughout the show. McIntosh, a willowy blonde, takes the title role in Tammi-Lynn, the most serious of the three stories. While she plays Titania (which is pronounced like the element Titanium, not like Shakespeare’s Fairy Queen) as your typical airhead, her Tammi-Lynn is down-to-earth and very appealing. Scott, a sassy African-American lass, plays the Miller’s Daught, Aisha, in Mistah Skin, and is hilariously funny in her Snow White get up. Her Faireetheeya is one BAD fairy, as exposing the dark side of enchanted folks proves a continuous theme throughout the show. And Umphress is a buxom brunette with nothing but Aa-Ti-Tude. She stars as K-Pig’s beloved, Meldina, but is a laugh riot whenever she appears on the stage.

Edwina Findley rounds out the cast playing a variety of lesser roles – notably K-Pig’s mother, Queen Ersilia, and Tammi-Lynn’s nosy neighbor Miz Tingle – with verve. Her big solo turn comes as the unearthly black medium, Beyoncé from the Beyond.

The entire cast boasts impressive voices and are ably supported by pianist Jon Werking and Eric Day on electric bass and acoustic guitar. The lively musical direction is by Darren R. Cohen and his associate Brian Usifer.

Brian Prather’s set basically stays out of the way, although Jeff Davis’ lighting enlivens it considerably from time to time. Unfortunately this is not Prather’s most creative use of the basement space in the Berkshire Athenaeum basement. The space is aligned in a standard fourth-wall configuration, and considering the fantastic nature of this show and the fantastic things Prather has done with that space, this set is a definite disappointment.

But Davis’ colorful lighting, Matthew Hemesath’s inventive costumes, and the versatility of the attractive cast make Funked Up Fairy Tales a visual treat.

Needless to say this is a family friendly show. I took my nephew and he adored the whole thing from start to finish, leaping to his feet to give the cast a standing ovation at the final curtain. And while for a lone grown-up watching other grown-ups pretend to be pigs and fairies and elves and such might be a little precious, having a child along allowed me to relax and get in the spirit of the proceedings. So if you have a child handy, take him or her along.

The Barrington Stage Company's Musical Theatre Lab production of Funked Up Fairy Tales runs through August 18 in the basement of the Berkshire Athenaeum, 1 Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield. The show runs 100 minutes with no intermission and is a delightful family entertainment. For tickets, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 (Pittsfield); (413) 528-8888 (South County) or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007

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