From the Capital Fringe Festival to 42nd Street come ‘The Brontes’


The cast of Dizzy Miss Lizzie's Roadside Revue presents ‘The Brontes. ‘ (Russ Rowland/; Courtesy The New York Musical Theatre Festival)

NEW YORK — Although the Capital Fringe Festival isn’t beginning its eighth installment in and around Mount Vernon Square until Thursday, it has already opened its doors in a city 220 miles to the north — in a manner of speaking, anyway. The extension of its reach comes in the form of a hit from last summer’s Fringe, “The Brontes,” which is making a Manhattan debut in the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

It’s great exposure for the Washington troupe that created “The Brontes,” Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue, a Fringe mainstay that brashly fuses the styles of rock concerts and vaudeville. The New York festival, running through July 28, provides a showcase to about 30 musicals by up-and-coming writers and performers, all entertaining the hopes of advancing their works toward a healthy afterlife.

Inside the sweltering Baldaccino tent at Capital Fringe, “The Brontes” — a loose, loud satire built in aptly unlikely fashion around the lives of the 19th-century sibling novelists — seemed the right kind of tangy refreshment. Presented in a handsome black-box space within the Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street (home to New York’s Signature Theatre), the show seems to be having a harder time generating the same level of heat.

At least that is how “The Brontes” felt Tuesday night, the first show of a six-performance run, which continues until Tuesday. Maybe it was just opening-night jitters, but some of the cast members were hamming it up so aggressively, underlining the jokes so forcefully, that it pulled focus from what’s richest in “The Brontes”: the rollicking bluegrass and rock score by Steve McWilliams and Debra Buonaccorsi that has Emily, Charlotte, little-known sister Anne and a brother invisible to history singing about their short, fraught lives.

Some cast changes since Fringe also hamper the efforts of director Rick Hammerly to show “The Brontes” to best advantage. The absences of Laura Keena as Anne and Jordan Klein as a lead band member prove outsize losses. Klein’s presence was a counterbalance for the rough acting abilities of the other musicians; without him, it’s all about their musicianship. Their speaking performances come across as beginners’ stuff.

Felicia Curry, who replaces Dani Stoller as Emily, makes up in sheer dynamism some of what’s gone missing elsewhere. In a multipurpose narrative role, the talented Gillian Shelly gives you too strong an impression now that she’s trying to electrify the evening. You can’t help but feel her burden would be lighter if she had more consistently reliable backup.

“The Brontes” has no story to speak of. Its inspired notion is — as with the stifled students in the musical adaptation of “Spring Awakening” — that rock music and the conventions of the stage provide a platform for revealing their souls and exploring their demons in ways denied to them in the 19th century. Because the piece has at the same time a wiseacre edge, manifested by performers rubbing each other the wrong way, achieving the right tone is no easy feat.

Maria Rodgers Royals’s costumes, a mélange of gothic and Goth, remain an optical feast, and in numbers such as “Come With Us” and “Breathe In,” the ensemble’s powerful voices blend as exhilaratingly as they did in the past. Sweating it out in the tent with Dizzy Miss Lizzie, though, was the cooler way to go.

The Brontes

book by Debra Buonaccorsi, music and lyrics by Steve McWilliams and Buonaccorsi. Directed by Rick Hammerly. Music direction, McWilliams; costumes, Maria Rodgers Royals; lighting, Joseph R. Walls; sound, Dan Martin. With Haely Jardas, Matthew Schleigh, Mike Kozemchak, Jason Wilson, Rich Nagel. About 80 minutes. Through Tuesday at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., New York. Visit www.nymf.org or call 212-352-3101.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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