Though it appears a saccharine, nostalgic romp at first glance, Movin’ Melvin Brown‘s self-titled revue is a genuine adventure through memory and music. Perhaps an unorthodox choice when the Toronto Fringe Festival offers shows considered more cutting-edge, but Brown’s performance is more layered and stimulating than it first appears.
As he sings, tapdances, and jokes his way through his life story, there’s a lot of reflection on what’s changed in the world, and what hasn’t, over the past few decades. Though he opens the show by mentioning his childhood in the 1940’s and 50’s – including the prevalence of racial slurs and corporal punishment – his wisdom and charisma scarcely betray his age. Brown’s vocals and dancing have a zest proving the adage that you’re only as old as you feel.
The show combines a spoken memoir detailing Brown’s time as a touring musician and dancer with music reflective of the era and his own mood. He goes from Bojangles-esque tap dance to soulful crooning with a voice that fills the room – there’s even a detour into southern gospel preaching. To give away more detail on his anecdotes would spoil, but I’d be remiss to not mention the hilarious set-up and pay-off for his James Brown tribute that nearly brought down the house. He also shows off the full range of his dancing skills with some clever use of audience participation.
The 90-minute show consists of Brown on stage with a microphone and series of sound and music cues. His musical accompaniment is a combination of acoustic snapping and tapping with, curiously, some use of backup melodies played over the speakers. Though it does make me pine for the rush of live music, it also means less superfluous noise and setup onstage to detract from Brown as a performer.
The music featured in the show is focused on the 1950’s up to the 1990’s, meaning it’s probably more appealing for mid-20-somethings and up, but that doesn’t mean Brown makes it easy for his audience. Though he has a darling personality, he speaks of his experiences with racism early and often, with frank discussion of the everyday realities of segregation, riots and profiling.
He is also unafraid to employ the N-word, since he endured hearing, and being called it, for the majority of his life, but to a modern audience it still has the potential to rattle. Hard to hear, though a valuable learning experience that puts into perspective how we got from “then” to “now”, and whether certain attitudes really are behind us.
Of note is that he ended his set by affirming that love and compassion can overcome adversity, which is quite a deliberate message to put out given today’s political climate. Especially with how hotly-debated the place of civility is against oppressors in today’s fight for civil rights. Given his life experience, though, it doesn’t sound like a platitude or just a nice way to wrap up the show. There’s a difference between fighting injustice with love and fighting it for love, and he seems to be doing the latter.
Overall, Brown puts on a fun and thoughtful performance with charming Vegas-lounge vibes. Bring a friend and get ready to clap.
- Movin’ Melvin Brown plays at the Robert Gill Theatre. (214 College St, 3rd Floor)
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (707 Dundas St. W.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Content Warning: Mature language and adult themes.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible. The show does warn of potential emotional triggers in its subject matter, depending on the life experience of the viewer.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
6th July 7:30pm
7th July 3:30pm
8th July 10:30pm
10th July 8:00pm
11th July 5:30pm
13th July 1:45pm
15th July 5:00pm
Photo of Melvin Brown provided by Maree Laffan Photography