Music or martinis? Rebecca Ritzel looks in on the opera "Once Upon a Bedtime" and the craftily staged musical "Complexity," while Roger Catlin checks out the lubricated commiserating in "Death Be Not Loud!"

"Once Upon a Bedtime"

Reimagined fairy tales are the stuff so many Fringe Festival shows are made of. Why not do Cinderella as a ballgown burlesque? How about Hansel and Gretel Choose Their Own Adventure? You take an old story, impose a clever framing device, add audience participation and voila: crowd-pleaser!

But those shows would be aimed at tipsy adults, and “Once Upon a Bedtime” targets the milk-and-cookies set. This is a children’s opera, and a very good one at that.

Courtney Kalbacker is featured in "Once Upon a Bedtime" at the 2016 Capital Fringe Festival. (Bob Grannan)

The Silver Finch Arts Collective, as the team behind “Once Upon” calls itself, includes composer/conductor Michael Oberhauser and director/designer Nick Vargas, who also is casting director at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. The ensemble of five musicians, seven singers and two dancers brought both enthusiasm and talent to their opening evening performance, which was performed for an audience of fewer than 20 (and just two kids) at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

The basis for the piece is Thomas Pasatieri’s 1981 opera “The Goose Girl,” with a libretto adapted from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale about a princess sent away to marry a prince in a faraway land. Along the way, a devious handmaiden manages to trade places with the princess, who is assigned to tend the castle’s geese once she arrives. Supporting characters include a talking horse, a wise king and a very naughty goose boy.

Wisely, the performers emphasize clear diction and expressive acting rather than vocal stylings. Soprano Courtney Kalbacker makes for an adorable princess, and Andrew Sauvageau distinguishes himself as the baritone who must trot, sing and neigh. The musicians were a touch flat at times, but could likely handle Pasatieri’s counterpointal score with a few more rehearsals.

Oberhauser framed the opera with a new overture and closing chorus. The latter was a bit tough to understand, but the new opening is genius. Dancer Daven Ralston doned big girl pajamas and scampered across the stage playing with stuffed animals that would later double as geese. After cleaning up and getting ready for bed, Ralston and her mother (Amy Alvino) curl up to read a book, and the singing begins.

“Once Upon a Bedtime” would be the perfect opportunity to introduce kids to opera. The festival might look into children’s pricing, or at least let those younger than 12 attend without a $7 Fringe button. It’s not happily ever after, but it’s a start.

-Rebecca Ritzel

60 minutes. July 15, 16 and 17 at Atlas Performing Arts Center Sprenger Theater, 1333 H St. NW.

Diana Brown and Susan Jackson in "Death Be Not Loud!" at the Capital Fringe Festival.(Diana Brown)

"Death Be Not Loud!"

The Southern Railroad Theatre Company, making its Capital Fringe debut, is actually from San Francisco. But its two chief producers, Susan Jackson and Diana Brown, both have roots in the South, which are brought to bear in their festival offering, “Death Be Not Loud!”

Written by Jackson, it concerns a couple of women who don’t even meet until its last scene. Brown plays a resolute divorcee who, while visiting her mother’s grave, talks about her final years, the indifference of the hospital personnel and how needlessly sweet her mother had always been. In doing so, she curses a bit and apologizes for it. She’s adjusting to the loss.

Jackson appears, martini glass in hand, in scenes where she’s talking on the phone to her ex-husband, a judge and bigamist, who left when his secret got out. She’s understandably bitter and has a lot to say when he calls.

Solo scenes are exchanged, back and forth, until they finally meet at a funeral where the two women, each on their own outsider trajectories, bond over smuggled martinis in a flask.

Brown’s mention of last year’s shootings in Charlotte, N.C., brings an immediacy to the dialogue, but writing in that her son-in-law died on 9/11 seems a bit forced.

The two, who have performed in a number of other theater festivals, know how to present a modest but revealing little two-character portrait, perfect for the time constraints of Fringe. Under the direction of Wesley Cayabyab, the two recognizable and credible characters are comfortable in their own skin. What’s more, “Death Be Not Loud!” has an ending, which is more than most Fringe-sized character studies do. No railroad-named theater company would be complete without its caboose, after all.

-Roger Catlin

65 minutes. July 16 at Martin Luther King Memorial Library: A3, 901 G St NW.

"Complexity: A One-Woman Show"

If you’re a college sophomore facing boy problems and you just failed to land that barista job, you may feel like your life is over. And if you’re a theater major, the best way to break out of your funk may be to write a musical about it.

“Complexity: A One Woman Show” is what Rowan University student Kylie Westerbeck calls her cute, well-directed musical about life on the college-kid skids. What’s unclear is whether her character, Beth, is autobiographical, and whether that title is supposed to be ironic.

“Complexity” is a six-person musical that follows a simple storyline: Although forlorn Beth can’t summon the will to get out of bed, she still manages a meet-cute, striking up a flirtatious conversation with the pianist who lives on the other side of her apartment’s too-thin walls. The promising prospect in this show is not Westerbeck, adorable and earnest as she may be, but director Ileana Furtuno, who employs some of the cleverest set pieces and blocking I’ve ever seen at Fringe.

Wheeled partitions serve as walls, which ensemble members rotate to emphasize action in the adjoining apartments. The onstage upright piano is just a pipework frame, with rainbow rubber bands implying the instrument’s string insides. Large blocks are manipulated to serve as a piano bench, a bed and everything else. When John (William McGlone) “plays,” he’s accompanied by offstage bluesy scatting from the ensemble. (Other accompaniment included recorded piano, a live djembe and beatboxing.)

Beth doesn’t know just how cute John is, with his hipster man-bun and artiste scarf, but she can guess. Unfortunately, his girlfriend shows up the night they finally decide to walk through doors instead of talk through walls. Whoops! Crisis! What follows is an indeterminate swirling of a cappella singing and movement that feels like a baby version of “If/Then.” That Idina Menzel musical, which opened here in 2013, was about a woman on the cusp of 40 coping with calamitous relationship problems and serious career missteps. So keep on making musicals, kids; life only gets more complex as you grow up.

-Rebecca Ritzel

60 minutes. July 16 and 22 at Atlas Performing Arts Center Sprenger Theater, 1333 H St. NW.


Fringe tickets $17, plus one-time purchase of a $7 Fringe button. Available online at, 866-811-4111 and at Fringe venues.