matthew zrebski

Portland Mini Musical festival: a hoot amid the heat

Debut production of six short musicals adds a valuable new institution to Portland's theatrical landscape

Yes, it’s sizzling, bare skinned bike riders abound, and even for those who dare to venture outside, Oregon’s summer natural beauty beckons. Yet if you’re seeking (mostly) comic relief from the heat, the ongoing catastrophe in the nation’s capital, or the usual early summer theater doldrums, consider a visit to a warmish, air conditioned southeast Portland theatre for the debut Portland Mini Musical Festival. Despite minimal publicity, Thursday’s opening show sold out; the final performances run this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Milagro Theater. It’s an unqualified success — the theatrical equivalent of a fun summer beach read.

Although this is the festival’s first year, the producing company, Live On Stage, earlier presented, as part of Fertile Ground Festival, 4X4=8 Musicals in 2012 at CoHo Theater and 2013 at Brunish Hall, each featuring original 10-minute musicals presented on a 4′ by 4′ stage. The company has also produced full length musicals Falsettos, Rocky Horror Show, and Spring Awakening in Portland’s World Trade Center.

PMMF uses only Portland writers, composers, directors, actors and designers, ranging from veterans like Jessica Wallenfels, Eric Nordin and Margie Boule to less-familiar names. Some of the 17 performers appear in more than one of the six segments, which average about 15 minutes each. The length and musical forces (Nordin and veteran Oregon classical cellist Dale Tolliver, who played splendidly throughout) were the only specified constraints. Each segment differed dramatically in theme, tone (although most displayed knowing humor), and subject. One constant pervaded though: a surprisingly high quality of performance and writing that made this one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences of the year so far.

Thompson, Freitas and Castillo in ’11th & Couch.’

Despite a signature song that urges happiness through lowering the bar of expectations, Marianna Thielen’s opening 11th and Couch set a vertiginously high standard for the rest of the show. Anyone who’s spent any time around a college campus will recognize the trio of signature gatherers for worthy causes, smartly played here by Michel Castillo, Madison Thompson and Matthew Freitas, who also displayed outstanding vocal chops. The audiences guffawed at the witty lyrics by Reece Marshburn and Thielen, and the vignette managed to distinguish each character’s underlying motivations. Fast paced and funny, it got the show off to scintillating start.

Gus, the Lonely Polar Bear’s music essentially consisted of variations on a song by Titaya Sinutoke and Naomi Matlow. “I’m a boring polar bear,” sings Joel Walker as he swims (actually rollerblades) back and forth in his zoo pool, before finding connection with Naomi Matlow’s new zookeeper. Walker’s sweetly lovelorn performance had the audience ready to treat him to peanut butter covered ice cubes.

With its (sometimes literal) skewering of classical music, conductor (played perfectly by Joey Cote) egotism and gratuitous John Cage reference, the longest piece, Third Chair, will especially entertain anyone (like me) who’s spent anytime around a string quartet or orchestra. Essentially a silly shaggy dog story concocted by Brett Vail, Kurt Misar and Brad Beaver, it benefited from the terrific acting and singing that graced the entire show, especially the first half. The deftly comic facial and body language displayed by the miming string quartet (Leah Yorkston, Adam Davis, Doug Zimmerman, Joan Freed) alone could have carried the show. I’d love to see it reprised at Chamber Music Northwest someday.

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