BOTTOM LINE: Though it lacks a strong, clear, story, if you love rock musicals like Spring Awakening and American Idiot, then you'll enjoy this production.
If emotions were illegal and you forgot how to cry or even feel, what would you do? Maybe you would try cutting - onions, that is. At least that's what the characters in Samantha Boyd's dark rock musical Return To The Onion Cellar do. This play within a play is set in a fictitious world where the government has outlawed emotions, onions, tissues and anything else tear related. The play is confusing but the performances are heartfelt.
The story opens with "The Cellar," sung by the playwright Sam (Samantha Boyd), in which she explains to the audience the emotionless world she has created. As the song closes, the play-within-the-play begins. Patrons of The Cellar, a cabaret-like speak-easy, are encouraged to cut an onion at the mic, which releases tears, allowing a flood of emotion to pour out of them in song.
We meet Glenda (Frankie Kraft), a bitter transvestite barista, Charlie (Roy Richardson), the angry alcoholic bar owner, Tod (Nick Lamedica), an angsty bartender who is strangely at peace with himself, and Delaney (Katie Venezia), the shy, abused girl he loves. Somehow, we also meet Gunter (Ben Reichman), the guitar player in the band, who realizes he is a fictional creation and not a real person. Gunter and Sam bicker as she controls him with her script until finally, he breaks free of her written words and is able to change the course of her play (presumably because he decided to cut an onion).
Meanwhile, in the world of the play-within-the-play, Glenda learns to accept who he is but then gets sent to jail, Charlie discovers that he is gay but continues to be drunk and even more miserable, Delaney finds happiness but abandons it, and Tod is left alone. We learn that Sam, the playwright, is really the one who can't accept her emotions in her song "Write What You Know." There are a lot of things, perhaps too many things, going on in this story.
Charlie's number "A Song to Drink To" is one of the stronger songs in the show for its story telling and character development, which allow Richardson to really shine in his performance. (I only wish the honesty with which he sings this song was present in his scenes, which instead feel like a one-dimensional stereotype of a drunk.) Venezia is a petite powerhouse who does a great job of working her songs and making them clarify and strengthen her character. Both Kraft and Lamedica give fine acting performances, however, since their songs are loaded with loud, aggressive, accompaniment and the actors have only one unidirectional mic to sing into, poor sound design caused their songs to be indecipherable the night I saw the show. The ensemble, though they don't have a clear purpose, deliver strong performances, as well.
Boyd definitely shows passion and promise but she needs to simplify her story. Return To The Onion Cellar is two plays with too many ideas that ends up saying little. Though the plot is not very strong, there are certainly some entertaining moments, especially if you're interested in a punk-influenced rock musical.
(Return To The Onion Cellar plays at The Ellen Stewart Theater at La Mama, 66-68 East 4th Street, between 2nd Ave & Bowery, through August 27th. Remaining performances are Monday 8/23 at 1:30pm and Friday 8/27 at 7:15pm. For more information visit www.ReturnToTheOnionCellar.com. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door, and are available at FringeNYC.com, by calling 866.468.7619, or in person at FringeCENTRAL, located at 1 East 8th Street at 5th Avenue. There is NO LATE SEATING for Fringe NYC shows.)