by David Fuller · August 17, 2015
Theater 80 on St. Marks Place is home to a new musical at FringeNYC, Far from Canterbury, a story about storytelling set to a pop score, with music, book and lyrics by Danny K. Bernstein. Directed by Juliana Kleist-Méndez, with choreography by Ilana Gilovich, and featuring a cast of ten twenty-something singer-actors, the show sets about to explore the natural human necessity for regaling our personal narratives to each other.
The backdrop is the age of Chaucer, though his Canterbury Tales have nothing really to do with this plot, which is slightly convoluted and a bit difficult to follow. Told by the entire ensemble, who act as a Chaucerian chorus, this tale involves a young man, John (played by Luke Hoback) who is accused of something he says he didn’t do. The Queen of the kingdom, played by Sarah Coffey, sentences him to death, unless within a year he can answer a riddle: what is it that women want most? To find the answer, he embarks on a quest with his two best friends, a narcissistic gigolo named Marcus (T. J. Wagner) and Agnes, played by Hannah Richter, a feisty wench who wants to escape an arranged marriage to someone she has never met. They have a series of adventures and meet interesting folk, including an incongruously youthful old woman named Delores (Katie Drinkard), a charismatic lead singer of a group called The Knights of the Round Table (Coleman Hemsath), and an Oracle with certain magical powers (Emily Austin). With the exception of Hoback, Wagner and Richter, the rest of the company does double duty as storytellers and supporting characters. All work admirably hard, so mention also must be made of Bianca DiCocco, Josh Archer and Chandler James Waggoner. It would be a spoiler to reveal the riddle’s answer here, but suffice it to say that at the conclusion of this two act show some solid topically relevant aphorisms are espoused about individual empowerment.
The direction and choreography are simple but effective, especially taking into account the short FringeNYC space rehearsal time. The acting is uniformly fine for the entire cast and the singing is also good, with particular vocal standouts Drinkard and Wagner. The costumes by Ellen Pyne echo Chaucer’s century while bringing in some nice contemporary touches. The simple set consisting of four moveable boxes with removable poles and occasional banners by Riw Rakkulchon is used creatively and works well for the concept. Taylor Black uses the Theater 80 FringeNYC lighting plot to maximum advantage. Music Director Adam R. McDonald conducts a violin, cello, guitar and drums combo from the electronic piano: they work well together, though at times there were volume issues.
Bernstein’s book needs some fixing to eliminate confusion and some red herrings (the acquisition of the white dress, for instance). As to his music and lyrics, there is some very good work, but a lot of the show sounds the same with only a few standout numbers. This is not to say the show isn’t effective overall, but it seems like it is an early work: one suspects there is much more to come from this young composer.