Michael Conley in “The Fabulist Fox Sister”
Kate Fox, the woman who invented séances in New York in 1892, is a fascinating subject for a musical for many reasons, not the least of which is the grift and theatrical duplicity that surrounded her “supernatural” performances and the “religious” devotion of her followers, which ring a bell very directly correlated to the MAGA world of 2023. UK-based writer/performer Michael Conley and Olivier-nominated performer/composer/music director Luke Bateman joined forces to explore the possibilities in The Fabulist Fox Sister, which recently played The Green Room 42 after a successful run in London. Conley provided the book, lyrics, and the title character, while Bateman supplied the melodies and the accompaniment.
Conley had a magnetic presence from his first moment on stage; his Kate was a classic Broadway diva, big bold and brassy. His voice was strong and sure, and he knows how to deliver a song. His years as a comic, and host of the award-winning Gay & Lesbian Comedy Fest (which enjoyed a lengthy run at Don’t Tell Mama before he left these shores for theatrical fame in London), helped to hone his timing and delivery. His physicality was another plus in his comedic creation, Kate. Bateman offered sparkling music to back the madness of the story and the character, as both composer and pianist. The performances were consistently impressive and winning. Unfortunately, the show they created was not, and there’s the rub.
After setting up that the timing of his story was the late 1800s/early 1900s, Conley as Kate Fox, in telling the story of her final performance and the tragi-comic backstory of how she got there, made little effort to use language that even approached what might have been legitimately spoken at the time. The book too often took the path of least resistance to anachronistic or out-of-character jokes and punchlines for an easy (and lazy) laugh without even attempting to give the writing a little more accuracy and class. A woman at the beginning of the last century would not have used phrases like “I’m a 10,” “…he was a dick,” “…seanced our asses off,” “…ass-end of nowhere,” “…none of these bozos,” or “…the shit’s legit,” to list just a few, but the barrage was constant.
One alternative would have been to take the outline and events of the story and set it in modern times with a totally fictitious character but retaining the basic narrative which would have allowed the vulgarities and obscenities and modern turns of phrase that were jarring in a historical context to seem realistic. Or, preferably, more effort could have been expended to actually create another era on stage through word and performance and present a full character and story in its own time and place. This lack of detail extended to the make-up Conley chose for Kate as she led us through her life. His face was a combination of Halloween, Drag Race and a child let loose with a make-up kit. It had no style and no connection to the character. It was a distracting mess that the show, and the performer, could have done without.
I hesitate to call the musical elements a score. It was more a collection of fragments of songs that might have been. There were some catchy and involving musical lines and some interesting lyrics and wordplay, but nothing seemed complete. The undelivered promise of the compositions became more and more irritating as the hour progressed. It was a pity because there were glimmers of some really good songs if they had been expanded and polished. The recurring main theme, “If They Believe It” had a Jerry Herman-anthem feel that I longed to hear in a complete song. “Bigger Things,” the “want” song of the show, had unrealized potential. “Something” was a fill-in-the-blanks love song where the blanks remained empty. The whole thing felt like a “sizzle reel” for a show score that didn’t exist.
The obvious talent on view was stunted at every turn by this lack of sophistication and effort. I was entertained but I was not satisfied. As it is, The Fabulist Fox Sister disappeared from memory before the last echo of applause disappeared from the room, but I will remember Michael Conley and Luke Bateman for the potential they displayed against this weak and woeful backdrop.
Presented by Green Room 42, 570 Tenth Ave., NYC, September 26 & 29, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”