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Hip Shot: Breast in Show

ribbonThey say: Welcome to the “ChemoCafé,” where strangers become friends sharing an unforgettable journey of laughter and tears on the road to healing. Join these warriors on a life-affirming emotional rollercoaster in the musical one reviewer called the “tumor of humor”.

Brett’s Take: How did this beat the odds and turn out to be really very good? It sounds like it will be a self-satisfied, preachy, television-special plate of theatrical margarine. Instead, it’s an honest, expertly constructed dish of… er… theatrical fruit compote, or marmalade, or something. You know, the good stuff. Surprisingly hearty and just sweet enough, with actual substance in it.

Not to belabor the metaphor too much, but the point is that this is a worthwhile experience for anyone, regardless if they know any cancer ‘warriors,’ as the show puts it. It’s almost too good for Fringe, in fact – Breast in Show has had two short runs in the Mid-Atlantic region previously, and creator/producer Eileen Mitchard hopes to see it performed widely in the future (next stop, the Gaithersburg Arts Barn). So, to put the cart of recommendation before the horse of review a little bit, you’ll probably have other chances to see this post-Fringe; but you probably don’t have a chance to have such an enjoyable experience in such good hands in any other show during this Fringe. Breast in Show is perfect for grounding yourself in the middle of a July of heat waves and wacky experimental stage productions.

Initially presenting itself as a sort of revue, flitting from one decontextualized scene of the cancer experience to another – hearing the news from the doctor, telling your spouse – the show quietly builds characterization in over time, and morphs from a musical survey into a deeply felt story. This approach is signified in the six actors not being credited as their main characters’ names in the program (everyone plays multiple roles) – the specificity sneaks up on you. What at first appear to be a group of generic cancer patients turn out to be real people, after all.

Ayanna Hardy’s lawyer slowly unravels a complex relationship with her work life, as she hides her chemo treatment from her law firm; Chris Rudy’s average dude, who becomes one of the not-as-rare-as-you-think men with breast cancer, finds a way to let his sense of humor act as an additional medicine for himself and his fellow ‘warriors’; and Gracie Jones deepens from a confused young person who simply doesn’t understand how she could get cancer at 29 to someone who will break your heart singing about how a “A Nurse Named Desiree” has brought such compassion to her treatment.

Breast in Show is interested in finding the honest angles on all the facets of the cancer experience, so don’t worry, it’s not strictly a nose-sniffler. Jennie Lutz finds the cheeky lightness in “My Oncologist,” trilling about her schoolgirl crush on her doctor: “I love the way [he] treats me.” In “ChemoCafé,” the ‘cocktail’ puns fly fast, but the humor is dry, not cheesy; it comes from the characters wryly examining their own situation, not Lisa Hayes‘ forcing jokes in. Her writer’s touch is deft throughout, and director Kathryn Chase Bryer finds the right tone for everything, neither too soft nor too harsh, with an appreciation for both the struggles these characters go through and the performative choreography of the stage presentation.

The professionalism throughout is worth the ticket price alone. Joan Cushing’s tunes are classic Broadway pastiche, uncluttered and lovely, and tackled with aplomb by musicians Deborah Jacboson and Dana Gardner. The color palette of A.J. Guban’s set, Frank Labovitz’s costumes and Zach Gilbert’s lighting design alone demonstrates the cohesion of tone and intent across the whole production. If anyone was going to tackle making a musical out of the breast cancer experience, it ought to have been this company. And if you or anyone could ever be tempted to attend such a show, it should be this one.

See it if: You could use a good, strong dose of humanity.

Skip it if: You’d rather think of breast cancer as an opportunity for a tax-deductible donation than a dramatic subject.