[title of show]
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 24, 2006
My reaction to the new musical comedy [title of show] was one I wasn't expecting: I thought it was dull. Honest—I must have looked at my watch a dozen times during the 90 minutes of this piece, which turns out to be a one-joke show extended well past the breaking point.
Before I proceed, I should note that lots of young theatre artists whose work I admire have told me that they love this show, identifying with its characters, story elements, and themes. This is a show about them and for them; but I found little to care about as [title of show] wended its way toward its ending.
The show's high-concept Big Idea is that a composer/lyricist named Jeff Bowen and a book-writer named Hunter Bell decide to collaborate on a new show to be presented in the then-brand-new New York Musical Theatre Festival. Their show will be about a composer/lyricist named Jeff Bowen and a book-writer named Hunter Bell who decide to collaborate on a new show to be presented in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Escher and Moebius would have been proud of all this self-referentialness.
The problem with Bell & Bowen's construction is that it doesn't adhere to a consistent set of rules. The show opens with Bell & Bowen (who play themselves) and Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell (who also play "themselves") singing an opening number whose jist is that it is the opening number of the show. But then the next scene shows Bell & Bowen deciding to write their show, i.e., the show whose opening number we just saw. From here the story proceeds entirely chronologically, which strands the opening number in a sort of time warp. Similar inattention to structure happens throughout: sometimes Heidi and Susan wait for Bell & Bowen to "write" them their lines, while other times they pipe up with commentary apparently their own. This is sloppy; maybe Escher and Moebius would not have been proud after all.
The show's first hour charts the creation of the NYMF entry, and it's funny and exhilarating in places. The final half-hour explores what happens after their NYMF success, which might have been amusingly speculative during the Festival (where [title of show] did indeed premiere, in 2004) but is now merely factual (or, confusingly, not factual—I'm not entirely sure how much Bell & Bowen have changed their second act to match actual events). The show includes some clever musical numbers (though the premises of some are less original than one might hope; the showy centerpiece in which a lyric is constructed almost entirely out of the titles of obscure musicals was done years before by Jeff Hylton in The Elephant Man-The Musical). There's also a number about NYMF that feels a little bit too much like a commercial; written as it was before the festival had ever been held, it has a quaint playfulness, but NYMF's subsequent big success makes this splashy tribute veer toward gratuitousness. Ditto a running gag in which a number of famous-ish theatre performers leave messages on the writers' answering machine, turning down a chance to appear in [title of show]. This bit would be funnier if really big stars along the lines of Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch were involved in it; having people like Emily Skinner and Christine Ebersole, who are really well-known only to theatre insiders, defuses the gag quite a bit.
But the insidery-ness is part of the show's appeal; I just wish it wasn't so calculated, which, for me at least, makes it distancing. So does the fact that while the characters do in fact get what they want in the show, the stakes are pretty minimal: we never get inside Hunter and Jeff's heads or hearts to find out what they care about and what makes them tick, and so it's hard to be moved by their success. It's all very businesslike, and for a show about the creation of art, that's kind of sad.
The performances are nonetheless strong, although I thought it took Bell a few minutes to warm up at the show reviewed; I can imagine that playing such cardboard renditions of themselves might prove wearing on these actors after a time. Production values are witty and solid; Larry Pressgrove's contributions, from a keyboard at the rear of the stage, are invaluable. Michael Berresse's direction and (especially) choreography is casual to the point of feeling phoned-in, however; I expected more solid work in that department.
As for the material itself, [title of show] is a snappy portfolio for its young writers, especially Bowen, whose music demonstrates range and vitality here. If I were a producer with a musical project in mind, I'd commission Bowen to work on it on the basis of what's here. What I wouldn't have done is produce [title of show] for a commercial run, though that's exactly what's happened: is there really a broad audience for a musical that's nothing more than an elaborate inside-joke-laden stunt?