Sunday, February 14, 2016

Fringe review: 'Awesome Alliteration: The Magical Musical'

Public education, in a musical skewering. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Fringe review: 'Awesome Alliteration: The Magical Musical'


By Howard Shapiro

It seems as though each year, at least one Fringe show becomes a dark-horse hit. Sometimes it's artsy, sometimes it's freaky or raw, but it's always homegrown, a substantial effort, rough enough at the edges to feel real, and usually memorable. This year, so far, Awesome Alliteration: The Magical Musical, looks to be that show — on a Saturday afternoon in mid-run it filled the house on the top floor of the Adrienne Theatre on Sansom Street, with some audience members already there for their second round.

Awesome Alliteration is much gentler than the in-your-face shows that usually fit the bust-out-of-the-Fringe bill. It's an altogether likeable two-act musical that skews public education in all its facets: teaching, administrating, and being a student. It's filled with so many puns — both obvious or better — that are taken literally by the characters, the show could have been crafted by the team that brought us Rocky and Bullwinkle decades ago and made the vagaries of English a sort of stock in trade and a basic part of the plot.

BetaMale Productions is the local team that created and produces the show, about a naive Jewish kid who's just graduated college and joins Teach For America, the national corps of newly-minted grads placed in big-city schools without any teacher training but with ideals and lots of know-how.

Here, the young guy (Pat Shane) is assigned to Media Res County High School, where the principal (Andy Kind-Rubin) and the mayor-superintendent (Will Harrell) are dead-set on following rules no one can explain — a no-idiocy-left-behind policy perfect for training martinets but not thinkers. The school district has de-fanged the classics so that only bland rewritten copies are available, banned all idioms and has a no-toleration clause for using literary devices.

If that's the sort of set-up that makes for midnight cabaret material, it would be enough, but Awesome Alliteration merits its two acts by moving through them with a developing plot, clever songs and some pleasant choreography by Caitlin Gutches. Our clueless hero eventually gets into trouble by trying new ideas alien to the district's policies, and although no one could call Awesome Alliteration a serious indictment, it sure seems that its goofy extremes point to the realities of running schools and classrooms. 

The show's book and score are written by David Orlansky and Joshua Levin — both Philadelphia-area residents who were Philadelphia Teaching Fellows, a program much like Teach For America; the two were laid off by the Philadelphia School District, but remain teachers in the area. Their third partner is Andrew Scott Zimmer, who wrote one of the songs, orchestrated the show, directs it and leads the three-piece accompaniment.

Awesome Alliteration is scheduled to run on weekends through the festival and beyond it, with a final performance Sept. 30. Teachers alone could probably happily fill the seats.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter.


Awesome Alliteration: The Magical Musical: $20. 2 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Sept. 21, 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 22, 2 p.m. Sept. 23, 8 p.m. Sept. 28, 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 29, and 2 p.m. Sept. 23. Adrienne SkyBox, 2030 Sansom St. (120 minutes) 

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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