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Salem! The Musical

By Julie York Coppens · June 7th, 2010 · Fringe
Hanging somewhere in the theatrical ether, ripe as a preteen suicide in a colonial barn loft, is a hysterical musical parody of the Salem witch trials. This be not it.

From Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre comes an aggressively feministic, foul-mouthed, fitfully funny chronicle focused on a few key players in the Salem saga — the Reverend Parrish, his daughter Betty, orphaned niece Abigail, slave Tituba and the wealthy Dr. Grimes — impersonated by an all-female cast of five. The gender- and race-bending allows for some outrageous gags, as when the Reverend (an African-American actress) and Tituba (a white one) recall the good old days in Barbados or when Grimes seduces Betty with a barrage of misogynistic offenses.

Played more or less straight in this ribald retelling is Abigail, a plucky young heroine with a fear of water (her parents drowned “in a whirlpool accident"), a love for mathematics and a hobby of dancing around in the woods. These turn out to be sufficient grounds for a witchcraft accusation. And we already know the verdict.

Every few minutes, the unsurprising plot pauses for another kitschy tune, some of which are, admittedly, catchy.

How catchy? Twelve hours after Saturday’s sold-out opening, I’d welcome any demon that might enter my head and replace the show’s wailing, minor-keyed refrain: “Welcome to Saaaaaaylem!” Other musical contagions by composer/accompanist Dan Wessels include the skeleton soft-shoe “Life Sucks” and “Do the Pee Cake,” a dance-along ditty inspired by the historical fact — humorously remarked upon here by a series of hand-held placards — that some “witches” were condemned when dogs died after eating cakes flavored by the suspects’ urine. As any good Puritan would say: “Ewww!”

But these flashes of inspired irony come cloaked in too many repetitive dialogue sequences, one-note portrayals and too-easy punch lines, as when Parrish barks, “Where the fuck is my Bible?” Comedy, like witchcraft, can be devilishly hard to diagnose, but when more than half of a script’s jokes rely on profanity you can be pretty sure the dog is dead.

The stagecraft here is just as lazy. This relatively large, under-rehearsed production fits uncomfortably upstairs at Below Zero Lounge, and the technical elements would shame a sorority Halloween party skit. Maybe that’s by design, like Tituba’s bad accent (more Bailieborough than Bridgetown).

Sure, it’s fringe, it’s a sketch show and we expect a certain thrown-together quality — but Salem! The Musical willfully crosses the line into carelessness. And as we know from the events of 1692 that can be fatal.

(Get upcoming performance dates and venue details here.)



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