Fringe Festival brings arts, Elvis to SBC

Five words: “Attack of the Elvis Impersonators.”

If nothing else, those 11 syllables should entice scads of area arts lovers to Amherst County for the inaugural Sweet Briar Fringe Festival, a visual and performing arts extravaganza Thursday, Jan. 31 through Sunday, Feb. 3 at Sweet Briar College.

A staged reading of the new musical by Lory Lazarus — best known as a songwriter for PBS’s “Barney and Friends” — will begin at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2 in Memorial Chapel. Admission is free.

Sweet Briar College Dean Jonathan Green will serve as music director for the reading, and Chad Larabee, of New York City, will direct. Larabee, whose latest production, “Ain’t We Got Fun,” premiered in London last summer, is presently in pre-production for an off-Broadway show.

Actors and singers for the performance, with the exception of two professional actors who will play the lead roles, will come from the ranks of Sweet Briar College students, faculty and staff and area theater groups.

“The musical is one of a few that Chad is working on,” said Geoff Kershner, artistic director of Amherst’s Endstation Theatre, which is producing the show. “He works on new musical development and this musical, along with some others, are still in process as they are shopped around to producers.

“This reading will be another step in its process towards a fully realized production. We thought this would be a fun piece for the fringe and would be a great opportunity for the students and community at Sweet Briar.”

The Sweet Briar Fringe Festival was the brainchild of Nick Ross, an accomplished pianist and SBC assistant professor of music. Since he arrived on campus in 2002, Ross said he’s been looking for ways to increase interest in the arts at Sweet Briar.

“It struck me more and more that we weren’t always getting enough attendance [at arts events], ” he said, adding that he also wanted to find ways to “get more people studying arts at Sweet Briar.”

A “First Fridays”-type idea was tossed around, but never materialized. Then Ross thought about fringe festivals he’d read about — particularly one in Edinburgh, Scotland — and thought that might be a good model for a Sweet Briar event.

One thing that attracted Ross and co-organizer Shelbie Filson, Sweet Briar’s box office manager, to the fringe festival concept was its comedic aspects. “Sometimes you might think of an arts festival as something serious,” Filson said. “The fringe festival encourages lightheartedness. We’re going to have some amazing events but we don’t expect anyone to take themselves too seriously.”

On Larabee’s Web site, a description of “Attack of the Elvis Impersonators” reads, “What would happen if ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ were to wed ‘Tommy’ and they had a baby together? The musical offspring would probably end up being ‘Attack of the Elvis Impersonators.’ ”

Kershner thinks it will be a good fit for the festival. “Endstation is very excited about Nick Ross’ efforts to create a fringe festival at Sweet Briar,” he said. “We decided that we wanted to offer something very much in the spirit of fringe work — something fun, quirky, new, and off the beaten path. … It should be an enjoyable evening full of surprises, laughs and what we hope will be a great fringe experience.”

Ross also likes the “continuous aspect” of the fringe festival because people might attend more events if they are in close proximity, time- and distance-wise, to each other. The Sweet Briar Fringe Festival has more than two dozen events spanning four days, culminating with a concert by Quink, an a capella group from the Netherlands. All are virtually within eyeshot of each other.

All events, with the exception of the Quink concert, are free. Tickets for Quink are $10 for adults, $7 for senior citizens, $5 for non-SBC students, and free for SBC faculty, staff and students and children younger than 12.

For reservations, contact the Sweet Briar box office at 381-6120 or boxoffice@sbc.edu.

Other offerings on the festival program include several art exhibits, poetry and literary readings, stand-up comedy, live theater and dance and music concerts, including a performance by Sweet Briar’s artists-in-residence, the James Piano Quartet.