CAVEAT: I again toured a show to the Kansas City Fringe Festival, affording me a unique opportunity to review some shows coming to the Minnesota Fringe in earlier stages of development – with the reminder that live theatre changes from performance to performance, and shows may undergo significant alteration from Fringe to Fringe.
ADDITIONAL CAVEAT: I have not worked closely with either Nick Ryan or Katie Hartman, but we’ve been working in the same places and in similar styles long enough to have more than a passing familiarity with each other.
SHOW TITLE: The Legend of White Woman Creek
PRODUCER: The Coldharts
HAILING FROM: New York
SHOW DESCRIPTION: The American frontier, 1867-A young woman flees her war-torn home to start a new life in an unfamiliar land. A thirteen-song cycle of love, betrayal and redemption sung by the ghost of Anna Morgan Faber.
Kansas Ghost Story,
Sung by zombie Joan Baez,
Lit by candlelight.
I’ve been a fan of the two creators for some years now — hell, I’ve been a fan of Nick Ryan for pretty much as long as I’ve been doing Fringe — so I assumed that I had a pretty good idea of what to expect: some deep, interesting ideas with some very flashy presentation. Which is why I was startled to realize, about ten minutes into the show, that this was exactly what the show description promised: a song cycle, controlled and restrained. A song cycle with an enjoyably ludicrous and high-concept frame story, certainly, but the vast bulk of this story is told by a woman, standing in one place, and singing.
So it’s a good job that this hits all the right notes for me — certainly both content and style are slam-dunks for my particular set of obsessions (as was stated in my interview with them: “It is the perfect show for fans of ghost stories, music and the American West“, an assertion that I found proved to be wholly accurate). Beyond that, Katie Hartmann has not only a pleasing voice, but that rarer gift of being able to emote effectively while singing. A show with so little in the way of theatrical devices hinges, I find, on subtler modes of holding the audience’s attention, on rhythm changes, on slight catches in the breath or a sustained, mournful note — all of which she manages to commendably hit: this is that rarest of animals, straight-up melodrama that manages to not plummet over the edge into being maudlin.
Moreover, this isn’t the idea piece I was expecting, but a character study. It’s not dissecting the broad, social implications of what happens to this woman (although it certainly invites you to) — it’s about illustrating her own evolving state of mind. It’s critical to the success of this that the story is so damn simple. There’s very little that actually happens in it, and most of the plot details are spoken in a sentence or two between the songs. The songs aren’t about conveying narrative information, but emotional content, and consequently I imagine most could be pulled out of context into successful solo pieces — I wouldn’t bat an eyelash at hearing any one of these as a single — but combined, they make one hell of a concept album.
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