Gutenberg! The Musical!
nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
November 30, 2006
Gutenberg! The Musical! is destined to be the kind of piece that will divide an audience firmly into two camps. The first camp will be the ones who do not find brash, politically incorrect humor entertaining in the slightest, and will probably storm out after Act One and go home to reminisce about the imaginary good old days when sophisticated humor reigned o'er the land. The second camp will be too busy busting a gut laughing to care about miniscule details such as plot, the music, or the play's ultimate contribution to the musical comedy canon—because Gutenberg! The Musical! is a damn funny show.
I don't believe you need to have a Broadway sensibility to enjoy this send-up of a backers' audition performance of a musical based on the life of the inventor of the printing press, but that may help you appreciate it a bit more. With nice direction from Alex Timbers and great comedic timing from co-stars Christopher Fitzgerald (as Bud Davenport) and Jeremy Shamos (as Doug Simon), the show truly wrings some great belly-laughs out of the thin vestiges of the story, provided by co-writers/creators Scott Brown and Anthony King. For the record, the plot is historical fiction about the conflict of wine-presser/inventor Johann Gutenberg creating the printing press in 15th century Germany, against the wishes of a power-mad monk who doesn't want the masses to have a copy of the Bible, or literacy. But that's truly incidental.
More importantly, the conceit of the show is that Bud and Doug are pitching the idea of a musical to a group of potential Broadway producers. Within the first three minutes, Doug tells us, "In fact, if you don't know the person sitting next to you, they're probably a 'Broadway producer'." In full do-it-yourself mode, they proceed to perform each and every role in the company (which number about 16 or so) by switching baseball hats with the characters' names on them, including such insane concoctions as "Beef Fat Trimmer,""Anti-Semitic Flower Girl," and "Old Black Narrator." That both actors can be so cheery with the audience before slipping in and out of these roles gives them the charm points to be able to be as politically incorrect and rude as any South Park or Family Guy cartoon—and is precisely (possibly the only reason) why the show works. It is this rosy-cheeked insensitivity, the ability to take cartoonishly terrible clichés and turn them upside down via humor, that makes this piece ten times better than the self-absorbed navel-gazing that has plagued other recent art-about-art pieces. It is a credit to the entire artistic staff to walk that comedic tightrope successfully.
One could, if one could stop hacking up a lung from laughing too hard, nitpick about aspects of Gutenberg! The music is entirely forgettable sans lyrics, and even at a short running time of about a hundred minutes, the second act loses some steam. But there are some aspects of this show that simply can't be beat—the full company kickline number is so inventively staged and well-timed that it is borderline genius. No clichéd musical theatre genre escapes unscathed, from the "charm song" to the "introductory number," the "soul number," and the "Act One rock song finale"—Forbidden Broadway might have a reason to watch its back.
I sincerely doubt anyone can be as hysterical as Christopher Fitzgerald is in the role of Bud. Whether he is playing the diabolical monk who orders the printing press destroyed, or the dim love interest Fraulein Helvetica (as in the font), or the rats in the tower that Helvetica's trapped in, or the Anti-Semite Flower Girl—he is the musical theatre equivalent of the Tasmanian Devil. Jeremy Shamos also provokes hearty laughter as Doug and gets to deliver more than his share of zingers, particularly in Act Two. The emphasis here is appropriately on the laugh meter, and the pure lunacy of creating a musical out of inventing the printing press.
If you do not like a certain style of in-your-face humor, or do not think that far too many musical theatre pieces take themselves way too seriously, then this is not the show for you. Otherwise, go laugh yourself silly at Gutenberg! The Musical!