Edinburgh Fringe 2012
The Blanks’ Big Break features the group better known to millions of Scrubs fans everywhere as The Worthless Peons, or Ted’s Band. The group are well known actor Sam Lloyd (baritone) as well as less familiar talents Philip McNiven (tenor), George Miserlis (baritone) and Paul F. Perry (arrangement and bass). In pitch-perfect harmony they deliver a set which does much more to showcase their considerable musical powers than their ability to come up with material (other than Scrubs) likely to connect with a European audience.
The producers have billed this as a big show and it is. They have a 5* audience. Teviot Debating Hall is packed to capacity. I can’t remember seeing it this busy since I seconded a EUSA debate on the spread of US cultural imperialism into the former Eastern Bloc (back in the day). I can’t recall the lighting design being as good for the debate but memories of my SRC days are somewhat Staropramen (the Czech word for hazy). A classic big American voiceover asks us to welcome the band on stage, half the audience roars out in excited recognition while the other holds its collectivist breath waiting for the irony to kick in.
The Big Break element of the show provides the narrative arc. The band have heard that a major talent scout is in the house and they are working through a list of suggested improvements to their set. Add jeopardy, personal conflict, an emotional journey etc. It is a cleverly worked setting providing space for each of the quartet to shine and for the numbers to be counted off at a good and steady pace. The lighting and sound design are equally accomplished and the polished performances are most engaging. They do an excellent job of pretending it isn’t roasting hot in the hall, they leave the stage with their beautifully tailored shirts totally drenched. The jewel in the night’s crown is the fact that these guys can really sing and are genuinely very funny.
If this show were a meal, however, it would resting on a bed of other people’s wilted laurels. The Blanks have got this audience because of their connection to an American hospital sitcom that lived on well passed its DNR. They are the cappella embodiment of that perennial winge-of-the-Fringe – why do so many big names get huge audiences for mediocre shows and why do folk pay to see them? Nothing about this show had been tailored for Edinburgh. Of course performers can’t and shouldn’t redress their act in the full Bonnie Prince Charlie and Tam O’ Shanter. Yet most of the songs were for products jingles and shows, such as The Million Dollar Man, which had only a second hand impact in Europe – and that not recently. Towards the end of the show we were promised a medley of Scottish songs. We thought mention of eleventh-century medieval folk classics was the punchline. No, the joke is that the Blanks seem totally unaffected by the greatest theatrical festival anywhere happening all around them. The only local reference (to Dundee) made absolutely no sense. It was like when Spinal Tap visited the Simpsons’ home town with the word “Springfield” taped to the back of their guitars.
This is a show that would rock the main basketball auditorium at Hicksville State University but no thought has gone into adapting The Blanks’ Big Break to appeal to the Fringe audiences they are getting. This fabulously well turned out group have not come up the hard way and it shows.