By C.S. Gilbert
What's not to love about "Conch Republic (The Musical!)"? It's tuneful, colorful, very funny, beautifully played and -- well, educational. One could not hope for better in a homegrown musical comedy but this show actually delivers more than it promises and establishes Key West Fringe as a real player on the Key West theatrical scene.
Locals and snowbirds with a sense of communal history need to see this show because they're going to laugh their asses off. Unenlightened locals and snowbirds need to see it because this history is important. And visitors need to go see it because it will immeasurably enrich their visit to our twisted little piece of paradise.
Director Randi Reams, a talented young Conch and recent college grad, does a very fine job and is surely good for another 50 or 60 years. Double three cheers for bookwriter Monnie King, the heart, soul and brains behind the Fringe. So too for composer/lyricist/ musical director Gayla Morgan. We knew she acted, sang, danced and played the violin, all exceedingly well, but who knew she was a talented composer, lyricist and musical director? Additional music and lyrics are credited to Bobby Green, bringing a true Key West character to the mix. And more cheers for J.B. McLendon for choreography and Jolly Benson for lighting.
What the Fringe has achieved with this production -- plus the other two plays in their celebratory trilogy about Key West -- is wonderful.
It's well known that (in order of appearance) Laurie Breakwell, Kyle Caskey, Michael McCabe and Tony Konrath are among the top rung of local talent, but castwise there are some surprises. Billy Cartledge is pretty well known as a man about town, but here he acts in a major role and his singing brings down the house! And Michael Aaglun in the leading role of Dennis Wardlow and the multi-charactered Matt Hollis Hulsey are flat-out magnificent. Welcome to the Cayo Hueso stratosphere, guys.
And Dahlia Woods' and Rick Worth's scenic backdrops are lovely.
OK, in this show eight actors play a total of 21 characters. That is a lot of quick-change mumbo jumbo and, one would hope, backstage dressers. Cheers to Ruth Calhoon, Mitch Jones and Cynthia Kemeny, credited with "costume coordination." But three pieces of free advice: multiple wigs, layering and Velcro would have helped. Only occasionally here does an actor reappear in a subsequent role who actually looks and is costumed like a totally different character. (Caskey achieves this well as Steve and the Chief Judge.) Breakwell's excellent Carmen could easily morph into the newscaster and then the bailiff with different wigs and a slim skirt underneath those Conch Cuban ruffles. It's even more of a challenge with the immensely talented and handsome and full-bearded Michael McCabe, who plays five characters, from Dennis' daddy to a governor's aide with just the one beard. This advice is offered on the assumption that "Conch Republic (The Musical!)" will become an annual, prized entertainment.