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.

The wry comic tone shifted after intermission with the bittersweet Roads, the only non premiere on the program. (I saw an earlier version in 2013 at the 4X4 Musicals performance.) Eric Nordin’s catchy, show-stopping songs could hold up on any major musical stage, but while Barbara Richardson’s powerful pipes rattled the Milagro rafters, Margie Boule’s (probably intentionally) wavery singing couldn’t match her touchingly vulnerable portrayal of an aging adventurer living in the past.

Satirical humor returned in Matthew B. Zrebski’s Portlandia-perfect Offended!, which spoofs the smug, passive aggressive political correctness displayed by some denizens of a certain community familiar to everyone in the audience. Each cast member managed to create a funny, distinctive persona in just a few lines, especially the smilingly seething, beleaguered barista Alec Lugo, and the audience chuckled throughout, but the segment felt less developed than the others, needing some tightening and more rehearsal to free the cast from the scripts that only this nevertheless-entertaining playlet relied upon. Zrebski’s impressively intricate music drew on everything from opera to oratorio to hip hop rhyme schemes and more.

Eric Nordin’s ’19 Children Saved’ closed the mini-festival.

Nordin returned in a creative role for the final segment, 19 Children Saved!, contributing music and (with help from Sam Gregory) lyrics to a time travel tale set in 1913 Oregon. Yorkston delivered the long, exposition-heavy songs with aplomb, and the concept is promising, but the show feels more like a work in progress than the others, possibly because its idea needs more room than the allotted 15 minutes. Series director John Oules says he hopes to turn at least one of these segments into a full length show.

Of course, with so many moving parts, these premieres suffered a few flaws in timing, the occasional inaudible line, and so on. But in general — and especially in that enormously engaging if less ambitious first half — these performances were far more fully realized (Oules said each show received five, two-hour rehearsals before tech and dress rehearsals) than you’d expect from any anthology series. While not fully staged (minimal props and in some cases blocking), they’re far more than readings or workshops. If the series maintains this debut production’s quality and delight, Portland Mini Musical Festival seems poised to join the ranks of the city’s other valuable local performance incubators like Risk/Reward and Fertile Ground. It’s even worth venturing out in a heat wave.

Portland Mini Musical Festival concludes Saturday, June 24 and Sunday afternoon, June 25 at Portland’s Milagro Theater, 525 SE Stark St. Tickets online

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