Mark Cofta’s theater picks: Musicals versus the Fringe

Rebecca Robbins stars in Studio 3's 'Souvenir.' (Photo courtesy of Walnut Street Theatre.)

Philly’s annual Fringe Festival seldom features musicals, which some savvy area companies have programmed as alternatives to the alternative theater featured in the Fringe.

First up is the Walnut Street Theatre's mainstage season opener: a revival of the 1962 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (through October 22). Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, with book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. The manic farce, set in ancient Greece, is directed by and stars Walnut veteran Frank Ferrante, plus Mary Martello and Scott Greer.

Upstairs in the Walnut's Independence Studio on 3 is Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins (September 12 through October 15), Stephen Temperley's popular play with music about the real-life would-be vocalist whose tenacity won over audiences even while her singing repelled them. Rebecca Robbins plays the role that Meryl Streep brought to the big screen in the 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins.

‘Godspell’, ‘Something Wicked’, or the spelling bee?

Villanova Theatre's production of the oft-seen Godspell (September 19 through October 1) might seem ho-hum, but the evangelical 1971 hit by Stephen Schwartz features Philadelphia's uber-director Matt Pfeiffer and a gender-blind cast led by Mina Kawahara playing Jesus and Megan Slater as John the Baptist and Judas; both are graduate students and accomplished professional actors.

Delaware Theatre Company premieres Neil Bartram (music and lyrics) and Brian Hill's (book) Something Wicked This Way Comes, based on Ray Bradbury's classic fantasy-horror 1962 novel about 13-year-old best friends' adventures with a spooky traveling carnival (September 13 through October 8).

At Bristol Riverside Theatre, the popular The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (September 18 through October 15) receives a fresh staging by Amy Kaissar. Six adolescents try to out-spell each other in a hilarious and heartwarming show featuring Philadelphians Leigha Kato and Robert Smythe.

Carousel or Cabaret?

The Media Theatre's Carousel (September 20 through October 22) — the Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II musical TIME magazine chose as the best of the 20th century — features Broadway veteran Joseph Spieldenner as Billy Bigelow and classically trained soprano Maxwell Porterfield as Julie Jordan.

The Arden Theatre Company opens its 30th season with Cabaret (September 21 through October 22), the 1966 John Kander/Fred Ebb drama set in 1929 Berlin. Matthew Decker, two-time Barrymore Award winner for Best Direction of a Musical, sees an eerie relevance for modern American audiences in the show. John Jarboe, the genius leader of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, plays the Kit Kat Klub's Emcee, with Charissa Hogeland as Sally Bowles and Daniel Frederick as Cliff Bradshaw, a naïve American exploring Berlin's underground decadence. 

At right: John Jarboe shines as the Emcee in the Arden's Cabaret. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)