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Gay penguins founder, air-guitar freaks soar at FringeNYC

<<Another ambitious production with impressive credentials (the creators won the 2004 Fringe Best Musical award for “Fleet Week), “Air Guitar,” is a solid winner. photo:Vincent Cardinal

Everyone knows that when you see a FringeNYC show, it’s wise to check expectations at the door. Given that the fast-and-loose festival is chiefly comprised of newcomers challenged by minuscule budgets and unforgiving schedules, the best we should hope for is a quirky diversion. So when brilliance strikes, and it often does, it’s a welcome bonus.

But with “The Penguin Tango” I thought it would be different. The esteemed theater company, Fresco Productions from the University of Miami, led by writer/director Steven Svoboda, had staged the 2004 award winning Fringe fantasia, “Odysseus Died of AIDS.” Plus, with the irresistibly cute subject matter—the “ripped from the headlines” same-sex pairings of penguins at various zoos—you can’t miss, right?

Not quite. While charmingly entertaining, the ambitious “Penguin Tango” plays as silly, muddled romp that tries too hard to please.

The setting is an icy penguin habitat at a zoo, populated by likable stock characters. There’s Wendell, the tough-as-nails mother-hen figure with a heart of gold, and his male life partner, the wheeler-dealer capitalist. There’s also the muscle-bound Italian lothario, the frumpy wannabe bride, and the nerdy molting misfit.

The overstuffed plot centers on the zookeepers’ schemes to split a handsome pair of young males who are life-mates, Silo (Brendan Maroney) and Roy (John Bixler), with an eye towards setting the boys straight. They implant a chip in Roy’s brain that delivers a wince-inducing electroshock each time he touches his partner or says his name.

When a buxom baby-maker named Dia is imported from Sweden to seduce Roy, mayhem ensues.

There’s much maniacal scurrying and opening and slamming doors, which quickly grows tedious. As you can imagine, the dialogue is laden with cheesy avian wordplay (“He’s been bird-knapped!”). And there’s the obligatory bird flu joke.

Some actors attempt a half-hearted penguin waddle that inexplicably comes and goes.

Overload aside, “Penguin Tango” has its pleasures. With her hilarious Swedish accent and goofball facial tics, Andrea Pettigrove, as the über-sexed Dia, practically steals the show. Steve Hayes (featured in the film “Trick”), with his sardonic Paul Lynde style delivery, delights as Wendell. Eli Sands, as the flighty flamingo, is also a hoot.

The clever costumes by Michiko Kitayama eschew predictable tux-like garb in favor of offbeat black-and-white outfits—such as black leather pants and harness that show off the male physique to maximum advantage.

To his credit, Svoboda does his best to keep things moving at a fast clip, reigning in the spectacle to 100 minutes with no intermission.

“Penguin Tango” is bent on giving us a boffo time while asking us to confront some heavy issues, like the consequences of inflicting “reparative” therapy and proscribed rules about sexuality and gender. In the end, through the chaos, we learn that penguins are penguins, love is love, and anyone who tries to impose judgments is making a sad mistake.

Another ambitious production with impressive credentials (the creators won the 2004 Fringe Best Musical award for “Fleet Week), “Air Guitar,” is a solid winner. Despite being plagued by a temperamental sound system on the night I saw it, the spunky rock musical delivers an unusually high degree of originality, polish, insight, and yes, delight.

Perhaps the key to the show’s power lies in its steadfast simplicity. It’s the story of Drew (Stephen Graybill), a loser guitarist who clings to his rock-star dreams while neglecting his beautiful wife, Celeste (Becca Ayers, “Avenue Q”) and his best bud Steve (Michael Poigand). When they dupe him into entering the competitive air-guitar circuit—yes, there really is such a thing—his life takes an unexpected turn.

Throughout his journey, Drew is haunted by a kind of anti-muse—the garrulous, larger-than-life air-guitar world champ from Finland, named Ulrich (Jeff Hiller). Clad in skintight ripped jeans and metal studded leatherette vest, the supremely gifted Hiller manages to top his outrageous performance in last year’s Fringe hit, “Silence: The Musical.” To watch him strut his androgynous stuff is sheer joy.

But Ulrich isn’t the only wacked-out character here. There’s the manic emcee of the “aireokee” events, known as Jammin’ Bread (Clayton Dean Smith), who spouts zany maxims like, “To air is divine.” Various air guitar freaks, with names such as “Hands Solo” and “Shreddie Kreuger” (played by Renee Delio), work their gimmicks to the max.

Mac Rogers wrote the book. The music, by composer Sean Williams and lyricist Jordana Williams, is pleasingly tuneful rock fare that would be at home in a Jonathan Larson musical. The air-o-technics are accompanied by the kick-ass wails from Gods of Fire, a popular NYC heavy-metal rock band.

As with many Fringe shows, “Air Guitar” suffers from a mismatched venue. In this case, oddly enough, the theater, the traditional Harry de Jur Playhouse, is too refined. An edgier performance space, with a jacked-up sound system, would have suited the anti-establishment spirit better.

Under the tight direction of Stephen Wargo, “Air Guitar” dares to take an obscure, bizarre subject and use it to dramatize serious themes—staying true to your art, sacrifice, and making choices that may or may not be compromises. It also asks something close to the heart of any Fringe-goer: What do you want from a performance, smarts or sizzle? In this case the answer, happily, is both.

Naturally, Drew initially derides air guitar as “a fad for hipsters who are too lazy to practice” and so do we. Yet somehow, this musical miraculously convinces us, much to our chagrin, to change our tune.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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