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Photo: Lauren Hamm.

Fringe Review: Tomatoes Tried To Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life

By Bruce Burwell on June 17, 2022

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Tomatoes Tried To Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life
Created by Keith Alessi
Produced by Quivering Dendrites (Vancouver)
60m | G | Music, Drama, Solo
Content warnings: mental health

When I first saw the title of this show, my thought was that it was a reference to the 1970s sci-fi spoof movie—Attack of The Killer Tomatoes. It’s definitely not. And tomatoes play a surprisingly small role in this show, given the title. But they are present on stage for the entire play.

Keith Alessi was a successful CEO in his early 60s. A couple of weeks after abandoning his business career to try something new, he was hit with a serious cancer diagnosis. He faced stage 3 esophageal cancer and needed months of chemo and radiation therapy to beat it. During his treatment, he decided that a major shakeup was required in his life. He’d been collecting banjos and now had over 50 of them in his closet, but he couldn’t actually play any of them properly. So he learned to pick. During the show, he demonstrated his skills on three different instruments.

This one-man show follows a somewhat familiar Fringe story arc. There is a trauma, a struggle to overcome the trauma, and then a resolution. Oh, and then a Fringe piece is written and the protagonist hits the Fringe circuit.

There is more to this story than cancer and banjos, though. He tells us about growing up in an Italian family with an abusive father in the Windsor area. He leads us through a very successful but ultimately unrewarding business career. He achieves his childhood dream of becoming a pilot. And near the end of the show he finally reaches his epiphany by—well, you’ll have to go to find out how.

This is a tightly written piece that Alessi delivers with gentle folksy humour and nice timing. Given the topic, this isn’t a laugh-out-loud production, but there are a lot of banjo jokes. A LOT. And a few surgery jokes. Overall it’s a warm, life-affirming piece that reinforces the healing power of the arts and of human connection.

There were only a couple of empty seats on opening night, so you may need to go early in the week to get in. This show has been a Pick of the Fringe and an award winner ever since Alessi started touring the Fringe circuit, with a sold-out run off-Broadway as well.


Tomatoes Tried To Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life by Keith Alessi is playing at BYOV —Atelier (2 Daly Avenue) until June 26, 2022. Tickets are $12 online (plus a $2 processing fee) and at the door. Visit ottawafringe.com for the schedule and box office info. Read more reviews at https://apt613.ca/category/festival/fringe/.

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