The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with nearly 3,500 shows. This year, Playbill is in Edinburgh for the entire month in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!
As part of our Edinburgh Fringe coverage, Playbill is seeing a whole lotta shows—and we're sharing which ones you absolutely must see if you're only at the Fringe for a short amount of time. Consider these Playbill Picks a friendly, opinionated guide as you try to choose a show at the festival.
When I first saw Larry Owens perform, it was during the Off-Broadway run of A Strange Loop (before it would go on to win all the major theatre awards, including the Tony Award for Best Musical). It was his first major role and he was on stage for the entirety of the show's 90 minutes. I've been a fan of Owens ever since, because his portrayal of the lead character Usher was funny, sensitive, raw, and cosmic in equal measures. It was the kind of star-making performance that felt breathtaking and intense, but also slightly dangerous, like it was costing Owens something profound to give this kind of performance to us.
So when I saw that Owens, who regularly does cabarets and concerts in New York, was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, I had to book my ticket. Larry Owens Live is a more stripped-down affair than A Strange Loop. It's just Owens in a white shirt and blue jeans, and behind him on a stool, a Telfar tote bag filled with wigs. The set-up may be simple but when Owens begins his show with an explosive disco dance track that starts with, "I'm by myself, I'm all alone," you realize the stripped-down, cool-girl aesthetic is intentional. Larry Owens Live is not about rhinestones and glitter, it's about brutal honest and vulnerability—with some laughs and bops along the way.
In his 60-minute show, Owens explores a period in his life in 2017, right before he broke out with A Strange Loop and Abbott Elementary—when he was still an under-employed actor and singer/songwriter trying to find work. Between auditioning for Saturday Night Live and trying to get music artists like Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X to say yes to recording his songs, Owens finds himself trying to fit into boxes that the entertainment industry demands. And he fails to please those powers that be, who aren't interested in songs about the opioid crisis and homophobia, or impressions of Viola Davis pointing out that she's been nominated for fewer Oscars than Jennifer Lawrence—no matter how catchy the songs are, how soaring the vocals, or how perceptive are Owens' impressions.
But I should mention, the show is laugh-out-loud funny—when executives ask for Owens' life story, wanting him to tell a tragic tale, Owens instead performs a ballad, slightly campy, version of the theme song to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But like any great comedy, Larry Owens Live masks a vulnerable heart which Owens reveals when he says, "If I win, if I succeed, do I detach from the pain that made my point of view?" It's an age-old question for any counter-culture artist: What will you have to give up to succeed, to go mainstream? And within that success, how do you keep the core of who you are?
Knowing how far Owens has come since the events of 2017, we know the answers to those questions. But, you don't have to. Larry Owens Live becomes a clarion call to any artist being told, in Owens' words, "I'm too gay for Black people, I'm too Black for white people," or that they're too much. The message is comforting and perfect for a venue like the Edinburgh Fringe: Don't give up on what makes you special. The show is only an hour, but I would have liked an extra 30 minutes in the back half to explore how Owens found his self-confidence (A Strange Loop gets only a passing mention).
And I'm not alone in feeling I haven't gotten enough of Larry Owens. On the first night that Owens performed, the audience gave him a standing ovation—a very rare occurrence at the festival I have been told. But when you are someone as explosive as Owens, it's clear that the talent will translate wherever you go.
Larry Owens Live runs until August 27 at Assembly Roxy, Upstairs. Click here for more recommended shows at this venue.