This quirky, but rather meaningful musical is my favorite Fringe show so far. Petunia tells the story of a couple who are long past their honeymoon bliss. Petunia (Flaningam) incessantly nags her husband Buddy (Denmark) to do something around the house for once. She sings, “There once was a man who lived on his sofa.” Petunia also has harsh restrictions on his lifestyle, most notably on his eating habits. One day, in the middle of an angry spat, Petunia keels over and dies. Buddy shows no remorse for his happy exhilaration. One of the first things he does is wrench the lock off the refrigerator.
After some time living an incredibly glutonous lifestyle, Buddy finds that Petunia’s soul has taken up residence in a houseplant, which re-institutes Petunia’s code for household management. Whether or not Petunia’s soul is ACTUALLY in the plant is really not a question; we’re made to believe that Petunia actually lives in the plant, even though Buddy’s family, including his mother, sister, son, and his pregnant daughter-in-law can’t hear her speaking through it.
The show’s music, written by John Levy, is really the best part of the show. Each number is fun, edgy, catchy, and has often unique messages. The songs reflect a wide array of genres, but all of them (okay, maybe minus two or three) left me with a big smile on my face. Its tone feels a little similar to Little Shop of Horrors, not necessarily because they both involve animated plants, but because they combine the right amount of wit, silliness, and heart.
The acting is also top-notch. Flaningam and Denmark are really exciting to watch. McMillan and McKay (playing Buddy’s sister and mother) are also great in their comedic supporting roles and I would have loved to see more of their characters throughout. I would also have liked to see more from Detectives Gomez (Enrique Acevedo) and James (Tyrone Williams), two cops who suspect the Petunia’s death is actually homicide. Their songs are some of the most entertaining in the show.
Now, while the show as a whole is great and I’d love to see it go on to become an expanded production, there’s a lot of little tidbits to clean-up. First off is the overall negative portrayal of women. All of the wives in the play are characterized as cruel nags, but none more so than Buddy’s daughter-in-law, Becky, who doesn’t have any redeemable qualities. Even when her solo song gave the show a chance to humanize her, it only gives her more time to lament the end of her partygoing ways.
There’s also the weird homicide investigation that pops up inconsistently throughout the play. I hope that the show keeps the investigation, but the execution of it needs to be much tighter. For example, every time the detectives presented evidence that Buddy killed his wife, I felt that it actually presented the opposite- that in fact, the death had been an accident. There wasn’t nearly enough attention or credibility in this sub-plot, nor in the final scene, in which, for spoilers’ sake, Buddy’s motivation is a bit unclear.
Some of the relationships between characters are also unclear. I spent 3/4 of the play thinking that Allison McKay’s character was Petunia’s mother only to get a scene where she swaps advice with her son, Buddy. Becky is also apparently married to Buddy’s son even though other points in the play suggest they’ve only been together a short time.
I highly recommend catching this show. Its last Fringe performance is this Saturday at Theatre 80 on St. Mark’s Pl.