Chuck Darrow: Philly Fringe gets a home 10 years in the making

Work begins Monday on a theater complex (above) that will permanently house the the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe.
Work begins Monday on a theater complex (above) that will permanently house the the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe.
Posted: February 22, 2013

MONDAY MORNING, a gaggle of muckety-mucks - including Mayor Nutter and Ed Rendell - will gather at the foot of Race Street at Columbus Boulevard, where they'll don hard hats, pick up ceremonial shovels and smile for the cameras.

But it won't be just another photo-op. Instead, the proceedings will represent a significant step forward for the local theater scene, as ground is broken for a permanent home for the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe, the 17-year-old company that is at the vanguard of local avant-garde theater.

When completed, the $7 million complex will house the organization's offices, studios, a restaurant/bar and an outdoor plaza. Its centerpiece will be a 240-seat theater.

"This is an idea 10 years in the making," said Nick Stuccio, the company's president and producing director, via email. "We always knew it was unsustainable to pop up every year in a new space and still grow and serve our mission."

The new headquarters will provide Stuccio and his colleagues a green home base. "The age of LED lighting is finally here, allowing us to use less power, less energy, less heat - all of which means we don't have to build a huge amount of power into the building to run all those lights," he offered. "Five years ago, we would have had to put in twice the power."

To the outsider, the venue - which will boast partially retracting seating risers and walls that open to expand performance space - may not seem particularly big. But Stuccio said the size comes with sound reasoning.

"We wanted - needed - a theater," he said. "We also needed offices, studio space and a spot for social gatherings. To get all of that in one building, we had to make some trade-offs.

"We're in business to push the boundaries, so we know that, at 240 seats, we'll always be able to fill a house. If we had a 500-seat theater, that would put a lot of pressure on the programming, forcing us to compromise our mission and values in terms of risk-taking."

Editing 9-1-1

There is a great dramatic story and some strong performances in "My Brother Marvin," the re-staged Marvin Gaye bio that runs through Sunday at the Merriam Theater. But in its current incarnation, the show, based on the memoir by Gaye's younger sister, Zeola, is sabotaged by a serious lack of editing.

According to director Clifton Powell (who also portrays Marvin Gaye Sr., the soul superstar's psychologically damaged - and damaging - father), this version is a response to those who saw the original production six years ago and found it lacking in information about Gaye's life and tragic death (he was shot by his father the day before his 45th birthday in 1984). We do learn a lot about the dysfunctional family in which he was raised, and how it impacted his life in various debilitating ways. But it would be so much more effective if many of the musical interludes were cut.

It may sound silly to suggest cutting music from a show about an extraordinarily gifted vocalist whose signature tunes - including "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "What's Going On" - are part of the soundtrack of the baby-boomer generation. But here's the rub:

The show's producers couldn't secure rights to Gaye's most-familiar tracks, so, instead, they've packed the play with a couple of other hits from the 1960s and '70s and some original tunes by Keith Washington (one of three actors who portray Gaye during various stages of his life). None of these serve the required purpose of propelling the story, and, even worse, they frequently cause the show to stop dead in its tracks.

The most glaring example of this is the extended second-act segment that suddenly transports the audience to a concert in an unspecified European city. First, we have to sit through a Tina Turner impersonator doing a cartoonish take on "Proud Mary," and then a nondescript (and over-amped) song by a male vocal group. The latter's turn is followed by the gig's emcee informing the audience that Gaye will not be performing and that the concert has concluded.

It would have been far better to cut that whole sequence, and simply have the promoter backstage being informed that Gaye has gone AWOL (incidentally, we are never told why Gaye blew off the gig).

Such poor pacing and superfluous music-making does no service to the cast that includes acclaimed actress Lynn Whitfield (as Gaye's long-suffering mom, Alberta), Powell, who manages to keep Gaye Sr. from being a caricature and, especially, the three actors ( Havier Hill Roller,Tony Grant and Washington) who portray Gaye at various stages of his life.

If this issue can be resolved, "Marvin" could turn out to be something very special.


Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St., 8 p.m. Friday 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, $55 and $49.50, 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.

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