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Fringe Fest 2013 Reviews: "Oscar and I," "Starting Here, Starting Now" 

Yesterday was Show Tune Sunday at the Fringe Festival, at least for me. In the afternoon I attended "Oscar and I: A Rodgers and Hammerstein Sing-Along with Mrs. Anna" at MuCCC. Mrs. Anna, in case you didn't know, is one of the great R&H characters -- the "I" in "The King and I," in fact -- played here by Jessie Barth, who does indeed wear one of those enormous Victorian hoop skirts. In the show, Barth tells a bit about Oscar Hammerstein II's life and his optimistic philosophy, and then gets down to business: leading the audience (a large one) in upbeat R&H songs from "Oklahoma!", "The Sound of Music," "Carousel," "South Pacific," and of course the one about her and the King of Siam. With their flowing melodies and simple but pointed lyrics, these are practically American folk songs by now -- most of the audience members didn't need the song sheets.

"Oscar and I" could have been really icky, but it turned out to be a ton of fun. Barth presents the whole thing with charm (would you expect anything less from Mrs. Anna?), and by the end of show she had turned everybody into a cockeyed optimist, at least temporarily. Too bad she missed her opportunity to sing "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top."

There was no singing along at the performance of "Starting Here, Starting Now" I attended on Sunday evening at the Blackfriars Theatre, a presentation by SUNY Geneseo Vocal Miscellany. That's because this late 70's musical revue celebrates the work of composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., one of musical theater's less-heralded teams.

Maltby and Shire have written a couple of Broadway musicals of middling success ("Baby" and "Big"), numerous shows that never made it to Broadway, various independent projects -- and a lot of excellent songs. A few of the songs in this show might be familiar to you (Barbra Streisand recorded "Starting Here, Starting Now" and "What About Today?", and others show up in auditions and cabaret acts). But most aren't, which gives this survey of Maltby and Shire's 60's and 70's work a freshness most composer revues lack.

And the work itself is definitely worth getting to know. Shire's music is richly harmonized and often rhythmically driving, and at its best it soars. Maltby's lyrics occasionally go into verbal overdrive, but they're clever and well-crafted and, in their calmer moments, quite touching. The team's songs are often so well realized, they seem like complete little shows in themselves -- possibly a clue to their problems with book musicals.

The show doesn't weave the songs (22 of them, dispatched in a little over an hour) into a narrative, but has a general feel of young people starting out in life and imagining its romantic and personal possibilities. It's very good material for young singers, and Alexandra Imbrosci, Megan McCaffrey, Elyssa Ramirez, CJ Roche, and Jacob Stewart present it with charm (there's that word again) and confidence. Ramirez does even more than that: her two solo numbers, "Autumn" and "What About Today?" are easily among the show's highlights. There's not a bit of hard-sell about any of the performances, which makes them all the more pleasing.

Melanie Blood's musical staging might be termed "informal," but it works nicely and has some clever touches. Alan Case's musical direction and accompaniment is solid as a rock. Obviously musical theater is in good hands in Geneseo. "Starting Here, Starting Now" is a terrific, endearing way to make the acquaintance of five talented young performers and two should-be-classic songwriters.

("Starting Here, Starting Now" also takes place Saturday, September 28, 8 p.m. at Blackfriars Theatre. Tickets cost $11.)

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