One of the challenges of reviewing Fringe theater is determining how much weight to give earnest performance over clumsy material. But with so many productions to choose from, with your time and money on the line, I’d rather be blunt than kind.
Darfur: The Greatest Show on Earth! thinks itself mighty clever, contrasting genocides in Nazi Germany and the Sudan under the guise of a big-top circus subverting the cliches of musicals. But it’s merely a muddle of ethical issues, preferring to preach at the audience rather than to be truly brave. When Theater J’s stunning In Darfur simply broke a refugee’s legs on stage, that was theatrical power at its most subversive. But being screeched at to get out of my chair and take political action, as in this performance? Just not effective.
The faults of Darfur: The Greatest Show on Earth! are really the faults of the writer, Jonathan Fitts. The naive plot lines – in the past a Nazi Guard grapples with his bigotry in the face of an innocent child, while in the present a Janjaweed soldier fights his love for a refugee – make for an awkward, clumsy musical that would need a very strong directorial hand to make it as gutwrenching as it seems to think it is. I’m not trying to be cruel – but these are young performers from the College of Southern Maryland theater program, and it tore me up to see them perform so eagerly in a piece so histrionic. Young thesps need direction and mentorship, and while there’s a lot of raw talent here, it isn’t being honed. Several actors couldn’t find the lung power to fill the small Mead Theater. And there’s an uncomfortable culpability in the playwright having them harangue the audience for political inaction on Darfur while providing divine forgiveness for a Nazi Guard.
Maybe I’m just too jaded to be moved by youth imploring me to care. You may feel otherwise. There are certainly spots of promising talent here, most notably Kenny Waters showing real charisma in the Master of Ceremonies role and an ode to capitalism wittily sung by Billy Thiedeman as a guns-for-sale middleman. But with all the myriad options on view on Fringe, this one has too many cringe moments for me to recommend it highly.