[title of show]
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
February 23, 2006
Anyone who caught [title of show] during its initial run at the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival will not be surprised to read that it could also be called Hit Musical. Because that’s what this little show-that-could, now playing at the Vineyard Theatre, looks, feels, and sounds like. It is so hilarious, inventive, and full of heart that it will make even the most battle-hardened theatergoer wonder, “How come they don’t write 'em like that more often?!”
[title of show] takes meta-theatre to delightful new heights. Librettist Hunter Bell and composer-lyricist Jeff Bowen—who also play themselves in the show—decide to write a musical from scratch to submit to the then-inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival. With the help of two actress pals, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff (also playing themselves), the enterprising duo set out to write as much as they can before the looming three-week deadline. But, what is their show going to be about? Hunter and Jeff quickly decide to write a show about writing their show, which leads to exchanges like this:
JEFF: So, that means that what I’m saying right now could end up in the show.
HUNTER: That’s right.
JEFF: And this, too!
HUNTER: That’s right.
And that’s just the beginning of [title of show]’s self-referential cleverness. Bowen and Bell smartly keep everyone’s sarcastic, irreverent real-life personas (at least, I’m guessing they are) intact. As the guys daydream about which famous people they could cast in the show, Jeff mentions Betty Buckley. Hunter winces. “Isn’t she a hot box of crazy?” he asks. Later, when asked why she isn’t auditioning more, Susan bluntly replies, “I’m a handsome lady, which makes me a tough sell.” [title of show] even gets musical director Larry Pressgrove in on the act—but only after he receives permission. When faced with answering one of the actor’s questions, he remains silent until Jeff says, “Larry, we worked it out with the union so you can talk.”
There are also effective moments of touching sincerity. After toiling away for years as an understudy, Heidi finally relishes her first opportunity to originate a role: “For once I don’t have to fit the mold. I am the mold.” Later, in the closing musical number, as the creators confront the mounting pressures of revising the show in hopes of garnering a career-boosting off-Broadway run, they decide that they’d rather be “nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.”
Bell’s book is a both a classic tale of can-do optimism and a feast for musical theatre fans. The story imparts the feverish love of theatre that consumes people in the throes of creation. One will find themselves rooting for this show’s intrepid foursome because their passion is so irrepressible. [title of show] is also littered with musical and pop culture references, both famous and obscure. Where else will one find a show that gives equal weight to Wonder Woman, Into the Woods, Henry, Sweet Henry, Hurry, Harry, and Shields & Yarnell? Such moments define the characters more specifically, and make their enthusiasm (and knowledge) all the more believable.
Bowen’s score is loaded with tuneful melodies and wonderful lyrics. In “Monkeys and Playbills,” a hilarious song made up almost exclusively of show titles, Hunter and Jeff search for inspiration while sifting through old Playbills. “Die Vampire, Die!” is a rousing and funny call-to-arms by Susan to ignore one’s inner critic. And the stirring 11 o’clock number, “A Way Back to Then,” in which Heidi yearns to return to a simpler time, is sure to become a new standard in no time.
One of [title of show]’s biggest assets is its cast. Bell, Blackwell, Blickenstaff, and Bowen are all sublime as…well, themselves, showing off fine acting skills, great singing voices, and excellent comic timing. Director-choreographer Michael Berresse wisely keeps things simple, giving [title of show] an informal feel that suits it perfectly. Neil Patel’s rehearsal room set, Chase Tyler’s everyday costumes, and Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz’s casual lighting add to the show’s easygoing demeanor. The audience knows instinctively that everything here has been polished to professional standards, but the charming looseness that [title of show] successfully achieves makes it feel as if one is watching it all unfold in someone’s apartment. Quite an impressive feat.
[title of show] is sure to become more than nine people’s favorite thing. Head on down to the Vineyard and see if it could become one of yours.