What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling
nytheatre.com review by Micah Bucey
September 11, 2008
These days, it seems that irreverence for musical theatre is status quo. The genre of self-mocking, constantly-winking shows may not have started with The Producers and Urinetown, but ever since the former filled the stage with dancing grannies and the latter kooky, reference-laden tuner scrambled its way from a few performances in the New York International Fringe Festival to a longish run on Broadway, the Great White Way has had a smattering of like-minded productions take a jovial stab, with disparate results, at this most American of (dying?) art forms. Some have lasted, with Hairspray and Spamalot coming to mind. Some have come in and gone out with a whimper, Cry-Baby standing as the most recent smirking victim.
So What's That Smell?, David Pittu's alternately warm, witty, and scathing look at the narcissistic, overblown tendencies of those who love and live musical theatre, seems inevitable. And even though by now most audience members have seen plenty of shows that poke fun at this most vulnerable target, the show also seems oddly necessary. Sure, we've been exposed to self-involved showbiz types for years, from Mama Rose to Max Bialystock, but Pittu's characterization of Jacob Sterling, a truly terrible, self-obsessed songwriter, adds a wonderful new facet to this canon.
The setup is simple: Jacob Sterling is presenting a crash course of his catalog of show tunes on what appears to be some sort of ill-conceived public access cable show called "CLOT (Composers and Lyricist of Tomorrow)," hosted by a mincing, eager-to-please, long-in-the-tooth queen named Leonard Swag. Throughout a brisk 70-minute running time, Leonard prods Sterling with questions about his long career (up-and-coming for over 20 years!), while Sterling performs ditties from his misguided musicals and scandalizing song cycles. Although they are joined toward the end of the evening by three young performers who help to present material from Sterling's latest pieces, the night belongs to Pittu and the hilarious Peter Bartlett, who has honed Leonard into an adorably cartoonish yet fully realized gem of a character.
It is during the dialogue between Sterling and Leonard that Pittu, who wrote the script and lyrics, with music composed by Randy Redd, is able to keep his satire sharpest and his humor most engaging. At the performance I attended, the loudest guffaws were generated by Sterling's sheer audacity in the descriptions of the sacrifices he has made in the name of his art and Leonard's devoted, demented confirmations. I won't reveal one joke at which I laughed so hard for so long I thought I might have to excuse myself from the theater.
Unfortunately, the songs themselves are less grounded in the ridiculous reality that makes the rest of the show so wondrously entertaining. While there are a few surprising, clever rhymes and some spot-on pastiches on some of the clichés that plague current musical theatre and cabaret, the subjects of these selections seem at times too easy and unexplored. Each song does include at least one or two ingenious lines, but too many of them suffer from a one-note sensibility that doesn't match the manic humor of Pittu's script. I won't reveal any of the titles, as they all offer a chuckle upon unveiling, but some wear out their welcome immediately.
The fact that I consistently have to keep myself from quoting memorable lines in writing this review seems to be enough of a reason to march over to Atlantic's Stage 2 to see the wonderful antics of Pittu and Bartlett. Their finely-tuned, generous characterizations are breathtaking in their subtlety. The evening might not be the triumph that it could have been, but it does offer a chance to watch two of New York City's finest character actors doing what they do best, along with a handful of knowing knee-slappers that will delight the hidden show queen in all of us.