[title of show] – [punny review header]
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
[title of show] is an interesting concept because it’s a show about success disguised as a show about failure. In 2004, Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, two youngish wanna-be Broadway writer/producer/composers, were struggling to come up with a good idea for a musical. [title of show] is the result of the pair of them looking around and deciding that the most interesting story they could tell was…their own. The musical follows Bowen and Bell (plus two dragged-into-it friends, Heidi and Susan) as they develop, pitch, and star in their meta-play. It’s not exactly suspenseful nor is their rise particularly difficult ([title of show] was a hit at the New York Musical Theatre Festival three weeks after creation, almost immediately moved to Off Broadway, ascended Broadway four years later to mostly good reviews, and has since toured nationally and been produced in London). One wonders how breezy this story would have been had the creators been two women or POC, but I digress. I didn’t find the book super original either, I mean, the only medium that likes to congratulate itself more than theater is film. But, despite all of my grumpiness, there is something quite fun about the piece, minus a few wincingly didn’t-age-well moments.
Part of makes this whole thing work is the absolute “can do” spirit of the performers. Owen O’Leary and Izaak Michael have the truly easy manner of real-life best friends, which goes a long way to making this feel less like an inside joke and more like a play you’d want to watch. O’Leary is particularly charming, he plays Jeff as, not a starry-eyed kid (impressive, since I’ll eat my hat if O’Leary is out of his teens), but more of a person who is aware that he has a certain kind of innocence, and doesn’t want it yanked away. This leaves room for Michael to do a gentle foil in Hunter. He’s a little more abrasive, ambitious, as it turns out. Lauren Stuart has the best voice of the four (“A Way Back to Then” is just fucking lovely) and she’s really slyly funny too – I liked the way she’s constantly wearing character shoes and how she walks on her tippy toes, even in the street, like so many painfully obvious Broadway dancers. Casey Dutt rounds out the primary cast as Susan, receptionist by day, actor by night. Dutt is well-suited to this character, who is by turns tender and brazen (though I feel like she’s in danger of getting typecast, I’d like to see her do something totally different than big-and-sassy-bold-and-brassy, but that’s just me).
The danger with [title of show] is it swinging maudlin or self-indulgent, and director Kristen Cooley appears to sense this difficulty, and pulls it back when it takes a turn towards the rocks (“Die, Vampire, Die!” and “Nine People’s Favorite Thing” both come to mind). She directs tightly and smartly, wisely choosing a fast pace, because letting this linger could be the death of it. Act 2 loses the way a bit, but I honestly think that’s because the script becomes weighed down as it feels like Bowen and Bell push for a coherent ending. Cooley does the best she can, though, to keep things moving, and she’s luckily aided by Tom Wyatt’s light yet perky choreography. Music Director Mandee Ferrier Roberts both works well with what she has in the cast AND is IN the show as herself, so +1 to her.
Did I say before that there are aspects of the show that didn’t make the jump from 2004 to 2017 smoothly? Well, yes, there are, most notably some shockingly casual transphobia (we can argue all day long about how the word “tranny” might be evolving in the transgender community, but the way it is used here is DEFINITELY consistent with a hateful slur). Not too good, and, if there is fear of cutting it from the show because of reprisal from the creators, I think a letter to Bowen and Bell about how this is not tolerable on the Baltimore small stage is in order.
BOTTOM LINE: [title of show] is chock-full of self-referential humor, and it’s the sort of thing that pretends it’s for people who hate musicals, but is really for people who absolutely adore them, in spite of their flaws. If it wasn’t for the appeal of the cast and the solid direction, I might have frowned at the “cleverness of me” script, but those factors pull it from whining to winning, and I liked it.
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