Backstage shows, such as A Chorus Line, Noises Off! and Kiss Me, Kate are catnip for theater lovers and [title of show] will definitely induce looped swoons in diehard Broadway geeks.
You thought you got all the jokes in MetroStage’s Musical of Musical: The Musical? [title of show], a fetching musical-within-a-musical at Signature Theatre, kicks it up a notch into Final Jeopardy territory
with references to fabled failures Henry, Sweet Henry, Bagels and Yox and Ruthless! (which I actually saw Off-Broadway in the early ‘90s), as well as shout-outs to Bernadette Peters, Alice Ripley, Sondheim, Avenue Q and Tavern on the Green (a mention that may need some updating, since it has closed—no more opening night parties, alas).
There’s even a nod to Glory Days, the coming of age musical that premiered at Signature a few seasons back and then bombed on Broadway a few months later. One of that show’s creators, James Gardiner, stars in [title of show] and if he’s bitter about New York’s blackhearted ways, you would never know it by the unabashed appeal of his performance.
Mr. Gardiner plays Hunter, the doofy theater queen (with an amazing set of pipes), who teams up with his equally obsessed friend Jeff (Sam Ludwig) to write a musical for the New York Theatre Festival in three weeks. The duo are joined by two friends Susan (Jenna Sokolowski) and Heidi (Erin Driscoll) to whip their idea—which involves throwing together a musical in less than a month—into some semblance of shape.
[title of show] features cheeky, reverential songs by Jeff Bowen and a wryly self-deprecating book by Hunter Bell (who played themselves during the Off-Broadway and Broadway runs) and charts the madness of creation. It is both an affectionate homage to backstage shows and a send-up of how Broadway musicals have become packaged commodities, a “brand” with many lucrative offshoots.
However, the bombastic special effects and TV star wattage of most modern musicals are nowhere to be found in Signature’s production in the small Ark Theatre. The staging consists of four mismatched chairs, a boom box, two laptops and the accompanist, Gabriel Mangiante, sitting quietly in the back at the piano. Why he is so quiet is explained in a witty aside where Jeff remarks “It’s OK. You can talk. We worked it out with the union.”
The incessant naval-gazing performed by Hunter and Jeff, self-described as “two nobodies in New York” in the zesty song of the same title, could dissolve into a cloying self-awareness, and actually does in a three-part montage to the creative process in the second part of the show that seems padded and indulgent. Yet, you can forgive the creators for a little meandering, since most of [title of show], directed with simple charm by Matthew Gardiner, is free of pretense. That goes for the performers as well, who convey uncomplicated hope and sweetness—the wonderful exceptions being Mr. Ludwig’s endearingly thorny Jeff, an uptight stickler for grammar, and Miss Sokolowski’s extravagantly edgy Susan.
Numbers like “Monkeys and Playbills”—a patter song made up of titles from Broadway floperoos juxtaposed with a hilariously weird riff on writer’s block—and “Die Vampire Die!” reveal the struggles of trying to put together something new and not heed the doubting and vicious voices in your head. “What Kind of Girl is She?” an ode to female insecurity and competitiveness, beautifully delivered by Miss Driscoll and Miss Sokolowski. “A Way Back to When” is nostalgic and lovely, while “Nine People’s Favorite Things,” a song that encapsulates youthful aspirations.
In a time of networking and emphasizing connections, [title of show] reminds us how important it is to simply connect.
[title of show]
Book by Hunter Bell
Music and Lyrics by Jeff Bowen
Directed by Matthew Gardiner
Music Direction by Gabriel Mangiante
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
[title of show] plays thru June 27, 2010 at Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA.
[title of show]