BWW Review: [TITLE OF SHOW] at Playhouse On Park
Broadway has given us many things - both successes and flops, brilliant (and sometimes not-so-brilliant) music, and the opportunity to sit in an audience and be transported to a new reality. For some, myself included, the countless hours spent in an audience (or on a stage), at home listening (and re-listening) to cast albums, or scouring the web for the latest piece of theater gossip are counted as some of the most exciting and memorable moments of our lives. The few hours spent sitting in a darkened theater or following the liner notes as you devour a new musical are sacred - taking us to places we gleefully imagine - places with fantastical characters and beautiful settings. And though you often see a glimmer of familiarity in the plot, the characters you encounter aren't necessarily people you might bump into on the street, have over to watch TV, or call your friends. But in Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen's [TITLE OF SHOW], the current production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, audiences aren't asked to suspend reality and take a magical journey to a faraway land, instead, they have the rare opportunity to join four real people, people just like them, who love performing (and making art) as they create something together - an original musical.
For the uninitiated, [TITLE OF SHOW] is the story of Hunter and Jeff as they spend three weeks writing a musical to submit for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Rather than write something based on existing material, they decide to simply turn the process of writing the musical into a musical, capturing their dialogue and situations right into the script. They are joined by their friends Susan and Heidi, who help the guys work through the creative process and bring the show to life. The musical numbers range from the self-referential, like "An Original Musical" about writing an original musical or "Filling Out the Form" when it is time to submit their show to stand-out pieces about the creative process such as "Die Vampire, Die" or "Part of it All". There are also a number of touching moments throughout the night that capture the child-like joy of pursuing one's dreams. In the end, not only does the audience get to witness the process that these friends follow to create this show, but in doing so, they also see the final product.
Full disclosure, I have been a fan of [TITLE OF SHOW] for almost ten years. Well, fan is not the right word, the right term is a [tos]ser - a dedicated bunch of fans who immediately felt a connection with Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff from the moment we first "met" them. Whether on stage at the NY Musical Theatre Festival or Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theater, via the hilarious YouTube series "The [title of show] Show", or at the Lyceum Theater, there was just something about this group of friends (and their goal to bring their little show to Broadway) that we immediately connected with. So, when Playhouse on Park announced that they would be bringing [TITLE OF SHOW] to the West Hartford stage, needless to say, I was thrilled.
However, I did have some reservations. How do you take a play written by two guys about two guys writing a play (starring those two guys and their two friends) and have different people play the characters? Part of what was thrilling about seeing the original cast on Broadway (and following their escapades) was the fact that, not only were we witnessing a hilariously fun (and sometimes touching) play, but the people on stage were playing themselves. Additionally, almost ten years later, I worried whether the topical and sometimes very specific theater-related jokes would still resonate. Would it still be as entertaining and funny in a different setting? Could it be just as good?
In one word - yes, yes it can. Sitting in the audience at Playhouse on Park I laughed harder than I have laughed in ages, smiled at the ups (and downs) of the relationships I saw unfold on the stage, tried hard not to sing along to the catchy and hilarious songs, and felt the thrill (and sometimes anguish) of these four normal people pursuing their passion. The production, though simple on the surface, is far from it. The comedic timing (and pacing) is spot on, and the 100 minutes (without an intermission) fly by. Leaving the theater, my face hurt from smiling and my heart felt like I had just finished a long visit with some old friends.
But, that's all well and good for someone who already loves the show, but even for the uninitiated, Playhouse on Park's [TITLE OF SHOW] delivers - a relatable plot, funny dialogue, creative staging, original (and exciting) musical numbers, and a unique theatrical experience.
I do want to spend a moment talking about the amazing cast and creative team for this production. First, Peej Mele and Miles Jacoby are hilarious as Hunter and Jeff, the pair of friends who are writing a musical about themselves writing a musical. Mr. Mele's comic rants and frenetic style are well suited for the role of the manic but loveable writer Hunter. Mr. Jacoby brings a calm, cool, but equally neurotic take to his role as comic book loving composer Jeff, constantly correcting grammar and trying to ground Hunter in reality. As their friends Susan and Heidi, Ashley Brooke and Amanda Forker are equally brilliant and funny. Ms. Brooke's dry, witty, yet sometimes insecure Susan is equal parts brass and vulnerability. Ms. Forker brings a lovely singing voice and a strong comic sensibility to her take on Heidi. Austin Cook rounds out the cast as Larry, who provides musical accompaniment and is an occasional foil for comic relief. Mr. Cook is also the Music Director (which is apropos - playing a musical director.) David Edwards provides strong direction for this band of Broadway misfits - using Playhouse on Park's signature three sided stage effectively and mining the script for its frequent laughs (and heart.) Marcus Abbott and Joel Abbott's Scenic and Sound Design also allow the cast to "rock hard with only four chairs."
All in all, [TITLE OF SHOW] is not just a love letter to the Broadway musical, it is a tribute to creating something new, taking risks, pursuing your passions, and not letting those vampires in your head stop you from doing the thing you love. Hunter, Jeff, Susan and Heidi (and sometimes Larry) teach us about life and friendship, and show us through their foibles and fables how taking a risk can lead to something truly unique and truly hilarious. I am thrilled I got to spend time with them last night at Playhouse on Park. The theater has done a brilliant job bringing this "rice krispie treat" of a show to life and I encourage anyone who loves musicals (or just a fun night at the theater) to check it out while you have the chance. Who knows, like me, you may become one of the "nine people" who count this show as one of their favorite things.
[TITLE OF SHOW] runs at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, CT through January 29. There is a talk back with the cast after Sunday matinees. Individual tickets are on sale now, ranging from $40 to $50. Seniors, Students, and Let's Go Arts Member discounts are available. All seats are reserved. For tickets or more information, call 860-523-5900 x10 or visit www.playhouseonpark.org. Playhouse on Park is located at 244 Park Road, West Hartford, CT 06119.
Bottom Photo - Credit - Meredith Atkinson: Miles Jacoby as Jeff, Amanda Forker as Heidi