Fringe 2019 – Public Domain Turns Disney Tropes Upside Down
Going into Hollywood Fringe Festival this year, I hadn’t heard much about Public Domain: The Musical. I’m a sucker for musicals, and what I had come across made it sound cute enough to go check out. After having seen the 30-minute musical-comedy lampooning Disney tropes, I must say that it’s a fantastically delightful gem hidden within the extensive well of serious dramas and one-person deep dives. A refreshing and supremely clever show that seemed all too short, Public Domain is a must-see.
The premise is simple: Two studio execs at a huge corporation are looking for their next big star to helm a potential movie franchise without breaking any copyright laws. We get to watch the audition and all the crazy characters it brings out of the public domain catalog. If you haven’t seen Public Domain yet, I suggest you stop here and come back after you’ve seen it (purchase tickets here). I went in knowing nothing and was pleasantly surprised – if not howling with delight – by each new potential star. Even their playbill is shrouded in mystery, it only shows the upcoming characters in silhouettes. Okay, now that you’ve been warned…
First, hats off to costumer Ember Everett, whose innovative costumes for some pretty outlandish characters are simply fantastic. From typical princess attire all the way to a human-sized pea and a literal monkey’s paw, each costume is intricate and well-suited for its larger-than-life character. The two puppets portraying the studio execs are also quite stunning.
The book, music and lyrics by director Sam Pasternack also deserve praise. Public Domain features a wide range of unique and mostly familiar icons from Rosie the Riveter to the aforementioned Monkey’s Paw, with a few curve-balls thrown in for good measure. Each song – including a princess origin story, a villain’s anthem, a side-kick’s quirky dance number, and a hero’s bombastic ballad – is straight out of a Disney film in terms of style, and more than one will get stuck in your head. Pasternack also excels at infusing each audition with layers of wordplay, satire, and the deliberate subversion of Disney tropes. I found myself wishing upon a star that the show was longer or that there was a cast-recorded album I could purchase.
Public Domain features a small but fantastically talented cast. Each actor embodies their character fully, and all of the vocals are on point. Codi Coates’ Rosie the Riveter epically sets the stage as the first auditioner; she opens with a pitch-perfect recreation of a princess’ song, only to shrug the whole thing off as an idiotic idea despite the studio execs offering her the role on the spot. Ben Cassil’s character (which I won’t spoil here) is an oddball choice, but his accent and repeating chorus had me shaking my head with amusement. I wish Kayley Stallings’ Princess was able to shine more (even if playing a different character later), since she is relegated to taking the backseat to her Pea (a cute tap-dancing Ember Everett). Spencer Frankenberger, while dressed as a monkey’s middle finger, fully commits to his character and manages to keep a straight face while keeping our toes tapping. As a potential hero (again without spoilers), Oliver Rotunno’s voice absolutely soars in his epic ballad. The two studio execs – puppets played by Michael Kraus and Max Mahle – are fun but are mostly used to provide commentary and bridge the gaps between auditions.
There’s really not much criticism I can offer Public Domain. Other than the sound balance being off on occasion – the puppeteers should really have mics – the show is an utter delight. I only wish it were longer so I could enjoy more cheesy puns, beautiful singing, innuendos, and constant surprises. Leaving the theater, I was grinning from ear to ear.