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‘Tomatoes’ an engaging hour of storytelling sprinkled with humor, accompanied by banjo


Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life is one of nine performances included in Fringe Fort Myers 2024, on stage at multiple venues May 30 through June 2. Banjos features “recovering corporate CEO” Keith Alessi, who learned to play the banjo after being diagnosed with a rare form of esophageal cancer caused by years of acid reflux that was aggravated by his highly acidic, Italian-based diet and super stressful occupation doing triage on financially-troubled public companies.

At the time of his diagnosis, Alessi had a collection of 52 banjos – one for every week of the year. But he didn’t play a note. Ever since hearing the first strains of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” when The Beverly Hillbillies first aired in September of 1962, Alessi had been enamored of the banjo’s unique sound. Although he never made the time to learn to play the tricky instrument, he had a weakness for the banjo and over a span of years he’d bought and squirreled away a prodigious collection of banjos in closets, under beds and in the other nooks and crannies of his home.

Told he only had a 50/50 chance of living another year and less than 15 percent chance of making it for five, he realized it was now or never. Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life is the story of Alessi’s newfound drive to master the banjo … and negotiate the outrageous slings and arrows of aggressive cancer treatment.

The result is Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life – an engaging hour of storytelling sprinkled with humor, peppered with sage, down-home observations about life and living, and accompanied by banjo tunes that range from folk and bluegrass to jazz, blues and classical. In fact, audiences will revel in a deft introduction not just to the genre, but the history of the instrument from its earliest days, when the banjo provided settlers and the enslaved with the means to express their longing and love for the homes they’d left behind.

That said, what comes across most during this compelling hour of storytelling is Alessi’s authenticity and vulnerability. He’s genuine. He’s charming. He’s endearingly self-deprecating. And he’s clearly grateful for the opportunities he’s been given … notwithstanding – or perhaps because of – the numerous obstacles that fate has thrown in his path. But as the artist says a number of times, he’s a windshield, not a rearview mirror, type of guy. After all, you can’t look forward if you’re mired in the past.

Of course, in Alessi’s rearview mirror are more than 370 performances dating back to 2018 with aggregate audiences exceeding 30,000 people and a gate exceeding $750,000 that he’s donated to charity.

No matter.

At present, he’s focused exclusively on his remaining performances at Fort Myers Fringe, although he has one eye looking forward to upcoming shows at the Squeaky Wheel Fringe Festival in Sarasota on June 7 and 8, followed by the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in August.

If cancer and the banjo have taught Keith Alessi anything, it’s the benefits and importance of being in the present.

Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life. Alessi will be on the Foulds Theatre stage at 5:30 on Saturday (June 1) and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday (June 2).

For more, read Banjo not an obvious choice for Fringe performer Keith Alessi.

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