Tight combos rocking hour-long sets late at night in small spaces, on a street where you can quickly dash from one venue to the next, with booze always near at hand. For years, that was my accustomed Friday night — but as a local band columnist, not a theater critic.
Fringe festival programming has a lot in common with how rock clubs do things. On the first Friday of the Hollywood Fringe, I found three shows that played the music as well.
I set off toward Santa Monica Boulevard in the right spirit: visiting a friend’s recording studio near the Fringe neighborhood, browsing at Amoeba Records on Sunset, nodding my regards to the Capitol Records Building off on the horizon. I even had dinner at a Chinese joint called Wok and Roll.
The first, and mildest, stop on my musical odyssey was CODA: Debut Album, a 6:30 curtain in the comfy 50-seat, upstairs “Flight” space at the Complex Theatres on Santa Monica near Wilcox. Playwright Cynthia Glucksman’s self-described “musical album” of seven separate one-acts uses pop tunes from Sinatra to Radiohead to underscore some fraught relationship dramas. In “Lost Wallet,” a man tests his girlfriend on Dylan lyrics then uses them as personal catchphrases. The final, and finest, piece in the show, the one from which CODA’s title is drawn, concerns a codependency 12-step group. Here, borrowed song lyrics become pleas for help — but then, so do shopping lists.
CODA had a video introduction with cast members citing their fave rock songs, and was meant to have something similar between each play, but the device spazzed out.
CODA‘s playlets transitioned fine without the electronics, but Charlie! The Death of Nancy Fullforce, could not possibly rage unplugged. This fast and loud clubland murder mystery, at the Fringe Annex on Santa Monica, features nine headbanging glam/punk rock songs, characters that go beyond Bowie in the androgynous sex-rock stakes, and even a two-man, tattoo-and-leather high-kick chorus line.
Nancy Fullforce is a guy, by the way. That moniker was claimed by a full-fledged rock band before the act morphed into this grotty theater production. (Both band and show have downloads available from iTunes.) Though playwright/songwriter Jasten King, who’s cast himself as Nancy, doesn’t have the vocal chops of the show’s main stars, he sure can pen an angry rock rant that propels a plot. When Robin Hall, riveting as jittery British TV journalist Charlie Max (who’s searching for the elusive Nancy), bleats one of his wrenching monologues, it’s like Wreckless Eric fronting the Runaways, with all the mortal anguish and immortal riffs that implies.
An even sharper Runaways reference can be found at Girl Band in the Men’s Room, which headlined the same Fringe Annex space minutes after Nancy Fullforce’s set finished. This five-character drama (four female musicians plus a guy who needs to take a leak) was the most realistic rock-related show of the night, without plucking a single live note.
Robert Ford’s script has been kicking around for a decade or so. It’s set in 1994, the year that Kurt Cobain offed himself. An all-girl punk-y rock outfit is having an impromptu band meeting, with the stall walls as a backdrop, before a gig in the last dive they may ever have to play. They’ve been offered a deal with a major label.
The story line falls into some heavy rock-theater clichés, especially the one where an unseen music-industry sleaze tries to separate the lead vocalist from the rest of the band. That scenario may work for episodes of The Brady Bunch or The Cheetah Girls but doesn’t happen a lot in real life. What does ring true, with a backbeat, are the fractious friendships of these young women. Michael Kortlander’s production is beautifully cast to reflect the many temperaments that make up a band.
The girl band never plugs in, but there was music and crowd noise aplenty bleeding through the Annex walls from the adjacent Fringe Cabaret tent. A band started jamming lame cover tunes just before midnight. I’d rather have seen the girl band in the men’s room rock out, but then I might not have had the pleasure of hearing them soliloquize.
CODA: Debut Album. Complex Theatres. June 19. Charlie! The Death of Nancy Fullforce. Fringe Annex. June 24. Girl Band in the Men’s Room. Fringe Annex. June 18, 22, 24, 25. All shows are part of the Hollywood Fringe.