Philly Fringe 2017: ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’

Not so strange after all

In Tom Waits’s “I Never Talk to Strangers,” he and an equally boozy Bette Midler sing, “We're all just perfect strangers/as long as we ignore/that we all begin as strangers/just before we find/we really aren't strangers anymore.” This may very well have been the point for Erin Brittain, Rachael Basescu and Grant Mech — three members of New York City’s Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. They and the church’s choir, the Shepherd Singers, with pianist Akiko Hosaki, curated and performed a program of short, sweet, dramatic songs by poets and composers whose life and work pulled them from their homeland: Stranger in a Strange Land.

The strangers, L to R: Rachel Basescu, Erin Brittain, Grant Mech. (Photo courtesy of FringeArts.)

Works from novelist Paul Bowles (an American in Morocco who wrote songs before he wrote The Sheltering Sky), Kurt Weill (he left Berlin for France, then the United States), Polish composer Frédéric Chopin (who died in Paris), and Romanian George Enescu (likewise) are included. These were given clear and tender renderings from mezzo-soprano Basescu, soprano Brittain, and baritone Mech, who is also director of music at Good Shepherd.

Each rousing vocalist had dynamic operatic range, reach, and a quietly theatrical éclat. These qualities shined whether attending to foreign language numbers such as the arching, dirgelike melodicism and hurt, blasé lyricism of, respectively, Weill and Maurice Magre on “Je ne l'aime pas,” or to Bowles’s English-language rendition of Gertrude Stein’s note to him, “Letter to Freddy.”

An Italian Market feast

That they were performing lost immigrant songs in an area where so many immigrants came at the turn of the century — the Italian Market — surely could not have been lost on this quartet. Not only did the foursome appear in this neighborhood at last year’s Fringe Festival with an American song program, but Brittain also playfully enacted an “Italian Street Song” (by Irish-born composer Victor Herbert), with Mech and Basescu adding background trills. 

The venue, Christ’s United Presbyterian church, has rounded wood and concrete arches that lent deep resonance to Basescu’s high lilt and Mech’s barrel-bottom bass as they executed Chopin’s “Zyczenie” and “Poseł,” respectively. Schoenberg’s “Mahnung” had a playful bounce — a rarely performed “Aria from the Mirror of Arcady” and its “boom boom boom” of love’s beating rhythms. While Brittain’s wide-eyed (literally and figuratively) take on “Es Regnet” from Weill and Jean Cocteau embraced the joy and sorrow of a common rainfall, Basescu’s English take on Weill and Ogden Nash’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” captured the entirety of the elegant experience on display.

With an expressive face and a haunted voice, the notion of romantic love and its elusiveness became a metaphor for the unfamiliarity of a land foreign to its scribes.

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