Gutenberg Story Makes for Mirthful Medieval Musical!
Gutenberg! The Musical!
Original music direction and arrangements by T.O. Sterrett
Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Nachamie
Musical Direction by Todd C. Gordon
Costume Design, Eric Propp; Lighting Design, Caleb Jon Magoon; Stage Manager, Kate Croasdale
Austin Ku, Doug; Brendan McNab, Bud; Todd C. Gordon, Charles; Jack F. Agnew, Broadway Producer
Performances through October 26, Downstage @ New Rep
Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org
Gutenberg! The Musical! takes a look at the skeleton of a new musical called - what else? - Gutenberg! The Musical! and asks the audience to imagine themselves potential Broadway producers who must envision that the show is fleshed out enough to merit backing. It's a good idea to instantly involve the audience because we feel invested in the success or failure of what we are about to see and everyone likes to have a little bit of power. However, that hook may be superfluous because Gutenberg! is a charmer and garners likeability from the two leading men, Brendan McNab as Bud and Austin Ku as Doug, musically abetted on the upright by Todd C. Gordon as Charles.
The premise is that Bud and Doug have written what they believe to be the next great American musical and have the opportunity to try it out for a group of financial backers. Totally ignoring the fourth wall, they repeatedly speak directly to the audience to narrate much of the story, as well as to explain the process of creating a musical. In the confines of the intimate and cozy Black Box Theatre it works, especially when they describe this as a "reading," defined as "no set, no costumes, no cast," but lots of "potential." (It should be noted that Doug emphasizes his explanations with lots of finger-scrunching quotation marks.) Given the limitations of a reading, Bud (music/lyrics) and Doug (book/lyrics) perform all of the songs and play all of the parts, differentiating the characters by donning a series of baseball caps with names hand printed on the face of the crown. Undaunted by a scarcity of facts about the real life of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of moveable type, they label their play "historical fiction - fiction that is true," and throw in some references to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to add gravitas to their effort.
Gutenberg! has the gravitas of a helium balloon, but the jokes and madcap antics are too numerous to recount. McNab and Ku have worked together before and it shows in their onstage chemistry. Their comic timing is spot on, especially when they complete each other's sentences or share a hug that seems to go on forever. Both men are also gifted with wonderful singing voices and make some of the songs better than they are. The musical numbers feature many clever lyrics and span the spectrum of genres one might expect in a Broadway show, from boogie woogie to rap, but none of them is sufficiently memorable to whistle on the way out of the theatre, Todd C. Gordon's accomplished accompaniment notwithstanding.
Director/choreographer Stephen Nachamie returns to Downstage @ New Rep after his success with last season's acclaimed tick, tick...BOOM! Once again, he uses the small space and proximity of the audience to best advantage and stages an energetic and zippy production. The costumes (basically street clothes and the aforementioned baseball hats) and the set (a couple of tables, a chair, and a music stand) are absolutely bare bones, in keeping with the premise of this being just a reading. Along those same lines, props include a spray bottle to emulate rain, a cardboard box labeled printing press, and an aerosol can to spew fog. The lighting is effective for altering scenes and often turns red when the devil-like character is portrayed. Beware of the furry cat that is his alter ego!
While New Rep is celebrating its 25th season, this is the third year of Downstage @ New Rep where the mission is to present programming that is new, edgy, and controversial. Gutenberg! The Musical! had its world premiere in London in January, 2006, and its US premiere in September, 2006 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival prior to opening off-Broadway where it ran for about five months. So, it's sort of new, but not terribly edgy or controversial, unless you consider how much stuff is admittedly made up for the story. However, never mind what Gutenberg! is not; it is, unequivocally, an hour and forty minutes of fun and laughter in a dark room in the company of two men who wear their hearts on their sleeves and whose hopes for the future sparkle in their eyes.