Portland Mini Musical Festival review: brief encounters

Fertile Ground Festival musical showcases benefit from focus on relationships

It’s hard enough to produce believable character relationships in a full length musical, what with the characters breaking into song and dance in the midst of their encounters. Yet even in under 15 minutes each, most of the six short works in this year’s edition of the Portland Mini Musical Festival at downtown Portland’s Brunish theater managed that difficult trick, mostly by focusing on a single relationship each.

Raimer and Carver in ‘Work Friends.’ Photo: David Kinder.

Work Friends, the most thoroughly successful of the lot, showed how even in just a few minutes, deftly drawn characters can evoke real sympathy — all while singing and dancing. Aubrey Jessen’s touching and hilarious office bromance earned genuine guffaws for its beautifully blocked cubicle dance, Jessen and composer Mont Chris Hubbard’s uproarious lyrics, and a winning, multifaceted (singing/dancing/acting) performance by Collin Carver. Kurt Raimer and Courtney Freed also excelled. An office worker longs for a closer connection to his charismatic but oblivious office mate, but doesn’t know how to make it happen— until an eavesdropping colleague stages a welcome intervention.

‘The Most Dramatic Episode Ever.’ Photo: David Kinder.

Two female contestants who meet in an audition for a reality show forge an impromptu alliance in Lisamarie Harrison’s Most Dramatic Episode Ever. A tight, mini 9 to 5 meets The Bachelor, the titular episode about the making of a reality show proceeds in a predictable yet satisfying humorous revenge fantasy course. A dim leading man Chad (Nathan Dunkin) on the make is outwitted by contestants Sonja (Emily Sahler, in a smart, convincing performance) and Ashley (a solid Malia Tippets). All three exaggerated just the right amount for this well-acted, smoothly directed (by Adair Chappell) broad comedy, and also delivered in Harrison and Kurt Misar’s songs, but James Sharinghousen as cynical director Troy just about stole the episode, which felt especially timely in this #metoo moment. Or maybe it’s just that the piggishness revealed in the Harvey Weinstein scandal is a Hollywood perennial.

As in last summer’s mini musicals, veteran Portland playwright/composer Matt Zrebski contributed the most formally inventive and expansive segment. Red in the Cloud consists almost entirely of a series of sung monologues, with each character wondering in turn whether an unidentifiable apparent suicide was someone they knew, and a poignant twist at the end. Its actors’ (Sahler, Dunkin, Michel Castillo, Matt Sa, Audrey Voon, Matt Brown) impeccably rehearsed delivery, snappily directed by Chappell, of Zrebski’s sometimes complex interwoven musical lines and heartfelt lyrics made up for a clunky intermittent punctuation by that most clinched of exposition devices, a TV reporter who intermittently narrates the stories’ connective tissue.

‘Red in the Cloud.’ Photo: David Kinder.

Freed and Bartley in  ‘Last Winter.’ Photo: David Kinder.

Marianna Thielen’s sweet, slight Last Winter unexpectedly reunites a pair of exes (Courtney Freed and Brian Bartley) on separate holiday visits to their mutual hometown, with again predictable yet enjoyable results. Thielen and Reece Marshburn’s tuneful melancholy ballads shone, especially an impressive duet sung by the pair while they’re in their different respective childhood homes, sometimes alternately expressing differing sentiments about their old town, and cleverly coming together on the choruses.

Sharinghousen and Voon in ‘Thera and Timmy.’ Photo: David Kinder.

Voon and Sharinghousen returned for Thera and Timmy, another less substantial though similarly ingenuous zoo-themed comedy to go with last year’s Gus, the Lonely Polar Bear. Both short musicals by the creative team of Naomi Matlow and Tidtaya Sinutoke might make part of a good family friendly show for a school or even zoo or OMSI performance.

Another sorta bromance, Mark LaPierre’s Power Outage, drew deserved early laughs for its spot-on spoof of early heavy metal preening. Paul Harestad as a riveting Zendor veered more toward glam Bowie, and the music sometimes summoned Pink Floyd. As Catastroph, Ian Anderson-Priddy nailed his ‘70s Ozzy, complete with eye makeup and roar. But the script repeated the same moves way too long, and further stalled in an encounter with a pair of perfectly costumed metal fan babes, before recovering in the second half when the real theme, and character depth, finally emerged. With some serious tightening and a more sympathetic band, it could be a roaring success.

Portland Mini Musicals’ ‘Power Outage.’ Photo: David Kinder.

Granted, it’s a lot to ask any stage band to cover territory so far afield of the modern show tune style that characterized most of the music here, most of it well-played and serving the stories well without being really memorable. Singing was consistently strong, for once avoiding the usual choice between good acting and good singing, but dampened by the usual Brunish sound design inadequacies. Nevertheless, like its predecessor, Live on Stage’s Portland Mini Musical Festival, one of the most entertaining and successful productions of this year’s Fertile Ground Festival, made a thoroughly entertaining evening of music and theater — the best relationship of all.

Portland Mini Musicals’ house band. Photo: David Kinder.

Live on Stage’s next production, Don’t Stop Me Now, created and performed by Courtney Freed as Freddie Mercury, runs April 4-8 at Coho Theater.

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