‘Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life’ at 1st Stage is storytelling at its best

Keith Alessi's remarkable one-man show is truth-telling as much as storytelling.

Comedian Steve Martin, known for his banjo-playing as well as for his wry comedy, greets visitors to 1st Stage’s second offering in its annual Logan Festival of Solo Performance—or actually a poster of the famous comedian does—and this sets the scene for Keith Alessi’s remarkable one-man show.

Other scene-setting devices become evident: four banjos propped and waiting, old-time banjo music on the speakers, a cozy stage with a few hard-backed chairs, a soft, well-worn rug underneath, and a big bowl of ripe, red tomatoes.

Alessi, who is fairly certain that he is the first and only banjo-playing accountant to grace 1st Stage, moseys out in jeans and a plaid shirt and starts sharing his story.

Keith Alessi photographed by Erika Conway

No surprises. For this resident of Meadows of Dan, Virginia, it is about how tomatoes tried to kill him but banjos saved his life, yet this performance is about so much more. His understated style might take its cue from Steve Martin but Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me but Banjos Saved My Life as written and performed by Alessi is storytelling at its very best. It’s one-part gentle lecture and one-part one-man jam, including a preview of the first-ever banjo opera—original music by Alessi.

This is truth-telling as much as storytelling. Alessi is a survivor of esophageal cancer. He’s also a survivor of corporate America where he rose to the very top of the ranks but always had a secret—a closet full of banjos and a passion for the instrument started back in his childhood in Canada as a child of first-generation Italian immigrants who struggled to raise five children.

His delivery is direct and unassuming, leaning into a smattering of corny banjo jokes (What’s the difference between a Virginia ham and a banjo player? That Virginia ham can feed a family of four) and a few insights into the beauty of the banjo and the banjitar or banjo guitar, and most essentially, leading us into the story of a life in which music moved from the closet to center stage. Music, in particular, the study of the banjo, and even more, old-time banjo music, saved his life.

A perfect pitch between the musical interludes and the storytelling frames this meaningful performance. Expressive stage lighting design by Elliott Shugoll and sound design by Kevin Alexander, who have worked on all three of the Logan Solo Performances, accent this performance perfectly. The producer/director/dramaturg of Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me but Banjos Saved My Life, Erika Conway, has done her job beautifully. This performance by Keith Alessi makes a big statement for our time.

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life  plays July 30 and 31 at 2:00 PM, and on August 2, 2022, at 7:30 PM, in repertory with Wanda’s Way and Spanking Machine at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA. For the complete Logan Festival of Solo Performance schedule and to purchase tickets ($20 general, $15 educators or military, $10 students, $50 Festival Pass), go online or call 703-854-1856.

The Logan Festival of Solo Performance program is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks and proof of vaccination are required. See complete 1st Stage’s COVID Safety Information here.

1st Stage 2022/23 season brings four regional premieres to Tysons
(news story)
A commanding performance of a police officer in ‘Wanda’s Way’ at 1st Stage
(Logan Festival of Solo Performance review by Carolyn Bock)
‘Spanking Machine’ at 1st Stage is both damn funny and healing (Logan Festival of Solo Performance review by Gwyneth Sholar)


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