Annoyance Theatre may not be an East Coast tribe (they hail from Chicago) but, wouldn’t you know it, they’ve gone and made something I’ve seen many a local theater fail at creating: a historically accurate musical retelling of the founding of Salem, Massachusetts, penetrating in its commitment to research and fact.
Every character, from the mustachioed coach of the high school boys wrestling team to the sunny-faced waitress serving Jack Daniels chicken wings at T. G. I. Salem’s, walks and speaks with a sincerity and historical truthfulness that transcends mere drama. You can practically feel yourself pulled back in time, to a day when women picked opium berries in the woods and the ghosts of dead ancestors came by the house to sing the old folk tunes, especially (my old favorite) the ballad we all remember as “Life Sucks.”
The New World never felt so like home. Look, there’s the ensemble of dancing citizens in aprons and big hats, waiting at the edge of town to welcome us! Marvel at how they spin rhymes with aplomb (“You’re just jealous / ’cause we’re so zealous” and “No one will get hurt / if you all just convert”) and lend wisdom and tact to the gender issues of the day (it’s only natural that a woman who can count to ten should be punished for her prideful transgressions). This is the stuff that made America!
A few moments, though, just come off as sarcastic. Don’t know what that’s all about.
But seriously. Even though we’re in the twilight of our Fringe season, you’re missing out big time if you don’t catch Salem! The Musical. This is lowbrow theatre at its sharpest and quickest. The script, written by the cast, is dark, rude and oddly charming. The music and lyrics by Dan Wessels are great, with buoyant harmonies and catchy refrains that don’t annoy, believe it or not, when they get stuck in your head. “Barbados,” a joyful ode to jerk chicken and sunnier climes, is especially fun, and it just might get you clapping by the end. Not bad for a cast of five and one upright piano.
The sun comes out from moment to moment, but remember: this is Puritan times, before happiness had really been invented. The punchy shenanigans retain life throughout the show in part because they get to bump up against a veneer, thin as it is, of the dour daily toil of colonial life, and the odd red prop really pulls attention on a canvas that’s mainly black and gray. It’s also a nice fit for Warehouse – the haunted-house-iest of Fringe venues – where stark and spooky come effortlessly. All Wessels needs to do in those first few moments of the show is tickle those lowest keys on the keyboard, and voilà: up comes a dose of smart sketch comedy blended with a touch of Halloween pageant and a hint – just a hint, mind you – of cheeky meditation on the evolution of American womanhood.
What makes a witch? The citizens of Salem sling a lot of accusations, but the verdict won’t come until the final courtroom scene. Should a girl be punished for her curiosity? The cast of five women flirt with a moral or two but, mercifully, veer away from postulating. After all, this is a sensitive time in the birth of our nation. We wouldn’t want to rewrite the history books, now would we?
Salem! The Musical
Written by Kayce Alltop, Allison Black, Elise Dubois, Rasheeda Moore, and Ashley Thornton
Music and Lyrics by Dan Wessels
Directed by Mark Vannier
Produced by Annoyance Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running Time: 75 minutes
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?