Big in Sudan, Carmen and Don Jose

Yesterday was the opening day for the 2018 Winnipeg Fringe Festival, and I took in Big in Sudan and Carmen and Don Jose. These are both shows featuring Melanie Gall, whom I’ve reviewed, here, here, here, and here. As you can tell from the number of reviews I’m quite a fan of Ms. Gall’s performing.

You can find the schedule for future performances by clicking on the highlighted show titles below.

Big in Sudan, Carmen handbill.
The handbill for Carmen and Don Jose.

Opening night’s for Fringe shows are always a bit of an adventure, and that was most definitely the case for Big in SudanAs mentioned above, Ms. Gall is performing in two shows at this years Fringe, and that puts you at the mercy of venue schedulers. In yesterday’s case, Big in Sudan was scheduled for 6 pm at the Creative Manitoba site, and Carmen and Don Jose was scheduled for 7:30 pm at the back entrance to Centennial Concert Hall.

One thing that resulted from this, is that Big in Sudan, or to go give its full title: Big in Sudan: The (Mis)Adventures of a Vagabond Musician had its first performance without the benefit of a tech person to help keep all the transitions. On top of that, the pressure of trying to get the show completed and still get to the next show left Gall doing some on the fly editing which left last night’s opening performance a little stilted. It also took her a couple of songs two really settle into her singing.

None of this is particularly surprising. As a priest, I know that when last minute changes to a service often leave me needing to wait until the days readings start before I can settle in, and I often find myself stumbling over my parts of the service. I’m confident this will all be sorted out by the next show.

Big In Sudan:

Gall’s show starts with a childhood memory. The story captures the sweetness, hope, and naivete of childhood. This combination is reflected in many of the stories that make up the body of the show. Those stories also mark a change in this show from her past shows. While in her previous efforts she has always thrown in bits and bobs about her own life, Big in Sudan is full on autobiography. It’s also her least operatic show, featuring instead popular music from the last sixty odd years.

From a dialogue point of view there is a bit of a TMI element to the show, but that is part of the show’s charm. While not a stand up comic by trade, Gall’s tales and presentation put me in mind of the comedy of two British comics, Miranda Hart, and Sarah Millican. As one would expect many of tales deal with cultural misunderstandings. The Cambodian Prince story is quite funny.

Her stories of misadventure make you wonder at times why she, or anybody for that matter, would want to take on such a traveling lifestyle. However as the show progresses Gall also balances out those tales with stories of how her life has been enriched through all this travel.

From a musical point of view the songs move from general songs about departure and travel to songs that are more personal in nature. One of the early songs I really enjoyed was Why Do the Wrong People Travel, a Noel Coward song that Gall has updated to remove its archaic historical references and pointedly anti-American sentiment.

In back of the travelogue aspect of the show is Gall’s desire to find a place to call home, and someone to share that home with. Such a desire could easily descend into the maudlin, but Gall’s humour and general lack of self-pity keep it from going to far in that direction. In this section of the show, Kurt Weill’s My Ship, and the Emily-Lou Harris/Willie Nelson collaboration Gulf Coast Highway, bring a sense of poignant longing to the show.

The show ends with a reprise of the John Denver song, made classic by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Leaving on A Jet Plane, that while Gall may long for a home and someone to share it with, she will not let that define her, but rather she will continue to pursue the pleasures, and the pain, that come with be a vagabond musician.

Carmen and Don Jose: A Tale of Love and Murder

Given all that went on with the first show, Carmen and Don Jose was an even more amazing performance. It’s not only remarkable to do two shows back to back like that, but on Gall’s part it requires a a complete change in vocal as well as theatrical character.

Carmen and Don Jose is a mixture of spoken word and singing based on both Bizet’s opera and Prosper Mérimée’s novella of the same name which was the inspiration for the opera. Performing with Gall is Eden Ballantyne, a storyteller from England. Ballantyne’s gifts as a story teller and humourist shine through in this production.

This show allows Gall to give full voice to her operatic abilities. This is a remarkable vocal performance. Having only heard hints of her operatic skills in other performances, this show is a real treat from a musical standpoint. Along the way Ballantyne occasionally offers a unique vocal counterpoint to Gall.

The story is told from the perspective of Don Jose, the corporal of dragoons, as he is awaiting(spoiler alert! Although, if you need spoiler alerts for Carmen…) his execution for murdering Carmen. The story unfolds in the familiar plot of the opera, but the performers approach to the material add a freshness to the material, and in doing so open the door for the audience to rethink the story.

For a start, Gall’s Carmen is more playful than the typical performance. By stepping back from the femme fatale aspect of Carmen we are allowed to see the male characters, Don Jose, and Escamillo end up coming across as more pathetic and needy. Throughout, Carmen comes across as more in control of her own fate, but we also get a glimpse of a certain loneliness in her character.

Such a transition is aided by the fact that, In Ballantyne’s hands, the male characters in the story turn into comic rather than tragic figures. This is particularly true of Escamillo, the bullfighter.  Ballantyne plays Escamillo as, self-absorbed and quite camp. The ridiculous nature of the bullfighters masculinity is further highlighted by the performance of the Toreador song in English. laying bare the stark and cruel nature of the blood sport of bullfighting. Such characterizations enable the show to ask questions about the male desire for dominance and possession in their relationships without ever becoming a preachy story about sexual mores. It also means that Don Jose becomes a less sympathetic person as we are left to contemplate his fate at the shows end.

Both Big in Sudan, and Carmen and Don Jose are shows that should be put on your must see Fringe list.



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