BWW Reviews: L.A. Premiere of Witty '[title of show]' Is Hilarious Fun
Have you ever sat around with a bunch of your smart friends and just gabbed all night about anything and everything, mostly about personal creative struggles or maybe trading a few snarky pop culture anecdotes? Well, seeing the long-awaited Los Angeles premiere of the Tony Award-nominated musical [title of show], in the appropriately intimate Celebration Theatre, feels so much like a kind of fun get-together. It's as if we, as the audience, are sitting and listening in on a lively gathering of close friends-who all happen to be immensely talented and pleasantly relatable. With a staging that is both witty and consistently hilarious, coupled with a catalog of charming, whimsical songs, [title of show] offers up an amusing musical love letter to (somewhat obsessive) musical show-lovers everywhere. This small musical about making it big doing what you love is a joyous ode that both elevates and criticizes the art form of the stage musical, and shines a light on the struggles one faces when crafting something other people obsessively love as well. With a brilliant book by Hunter Bell and ingeniously clever music by Jeff Bowen, [title of show] deserves its place among those productions that have gained a musical theater cult following, that this very show itself celebrates. Performances continue through September 5.
Based on the very real journey of the show from its origins at the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival to its all-too-brief run on Broadway in 2008, [title of show] is self-described as "a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical." What would seem like unimportant conversations that actually occurred between authors Hunter and Jeff are here, fully dramatized in the show-albeit with a bare stage with only four chairs and a keyboardist-from their joking admiration for failed musical theater gems to the harmless need to escape with reality TV's brain-dead qualities to alleviate writers' block. After receiving an invitation to submit a show concept to the NYMTF, website designer Jeff (here played by Jeffrey Landman) urges his cater-waiter friend Hunter (Micah McCain) to write an original musical...in three weeks! The Broadway-obsessed pair struggles a bit with ideas, especially keeping in mind that most successful original shows are usually based on existing books, movies or "other recognizable commodities," not to mention their need to have a marquee name attached to them.
Soon, they settle on the inspired idea of just creating a show about their seemingly interesting experiences creating the show. They expand the concept by including their two friends Susan (Jennifer R. Blake) and Heidi (Carey Peters) who initially feel uneasy with each other. Susan, always at the ready with clever retorts, is an actress with a day job, and no longer finds joy in auditioning because she thinks it's difficult to cast parts for a "handsome lady" like herself. Heidi, on the other hand, is a bubbly personality who consistently books jobs as someone else's understudy. The foursome help each other create the show and have a lot of fun doing so. They also have on-stage help from Larry (Gregory Nabours) who plays the keyboard throughout the show. Once in a while, he amusingly chimes in on the action, occasionally complaining that he's often ignored or the actors aren't singing on key. Striving to stay true to their creative instincts, this circle of friends try their best to thwart the onslaught of "vampires"-hilariously illustrated by Susan-including those that whisper doubts into their already insecure psyches.
When the show does get accepted into the festival and is then eventually offered an off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre (which did actually happen!), Hunter and Jeff bicker about balancing creative integrity and financial marketability. Ugly tensions slowly come to the surface, threatening the stability of their creative-friendship circle. Only when they finally accept the idea that they would rather be "Nine People's Favorite Thing, than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing" do they realize that their dreams are only as fulfilling as how wonderful and creatively truthful their journey has been that got them there.
Arguably the most self-aware, self-referential show ever mounted, [title of show] doesn't shy away from revealing its bare-bones identity, which in turn becomes part of its beguiling charm. Instead, there are plenty of very 'meta' moments, a famous cameo or two, and even a wealth of inside jokes that add to the overall entertaining quality of this insanely fun show. And though both show-loving Hunter and Wonder Woman-obsessed Jeff are gay (shocker!), their matter-of-fact orientation becomes a non-issue that doesn't play much of a part in their story. While there are a great many references made to both popular and little-known gems from Broadway's past, you don't have to possess a Broadway encyclopedia in order to enjoy the back-stage nature of the show. The foul language is bountiful, but never gratuitous (and always gut-busting). Because this show is truly a love letter to musical theater and its peripheral surroundings, the snarky and not-so-flattering jibes at everyone from Toni Braxton to Paris Hilton are not so much mean-spirited as they are constructive commentary for the betterment of the industry that they now have a vested interest in joining legitimately. They routinely break the fourth wall by reminding the audience that the drama unfolding involves real exchanges, but then whips those notions upside down by presenting some of the most lively "fantasy" sequences (with a considerably small budget).
Because of the show's very nature of truthfulness and self-awareness, large changes and updates are to be expected with each iteration of [title of show] to make it more current and timely, including this very one at the Celebration Theatre. Surprisingly, the changes from the original are minimal and inconspicuous, honoring and trusting its already great source material. Under the direction of Michael A Shepperd, [title of show] zips merrily along its tighter, intermission-less 90 minutes, keeping the energy and momentum going with each scene.
The material is, of course, served well by an extremely talented cast, all of whom have strong, amazing voices that compliment their equally enjoyable personalities. It is certainly quite a heavy task to take on the roles so effortlessly played originally by the roles' true-life counterparts, but this cast meets this challenge with grace and bravery. Landman gives his version of Jeff an endearing, lovably-dorky persona, with a sweetness that fits his character quite well, but also houses a powerful singing voice. McCain's funny and over-the-top turn as Hunter is spot-on, from his hilarious portrayal of "Blank Paper" to his sudden seriousness as he takes on the notes he receives from show investors. Blake's Susan feels (and sounds) somewhat younger than the original incarnation of the character, but Blake makes the role her own, and gives her Susan a very lived-in feeling and does so with an impressive singing voice and perfect comic timing. Even with minimal dialogue, piano boy Nabours is entertaining to watch in the background. And as Heidi, Peters is equal parts good-girl-gone-sassy and beautiful ingenue. Her marvelous late-show solo "A Way Back To Then" is both triumphant and touching. Yes, folks, admittedly, this reviewer got slightly teary-eyed during the song, especially as her co-stars so reverently watched her sing the heck out of that 11 o'clock number. Bravo, Miss Peters, bravo!
It is also worth noting that their mastery of their theater space-the smaller, more intimate black-box structure of the Celebration Theatre-is well executed. Aside from a few jumbled lyrics and messed lines of dialogue, their voices during both musical and spoken sequences are crystal clear all throughout, which is an appreciated thing considering the unfortunate opposite experiences that occur at other similarly-sized theaters. This just shows the level of professionalism this cast has, adding to why this musical is truly a must-see. For those in the Southern California area that missed the original productions of this show in New York, yet have already spent a few years laughing hysterically at the [title of show] soundtrack, or have caught episodes of Bell and Bowen's highly-entertaining online web show The [title of show] Show, here is a great opportunity to see the show locally, performed by a really great cast that effectively honors the original inspirational concept.
[Editorial note: How fitting that this L.A. production is reviewed on the exact same day-two years later, of course-when the show officially opened on Broadway: July 17, 2008.]
Score: 9 / 10
Photos from the Celebration Theatre production of [title of show] by David Elzer/Demand PR.
Top: Standing: Jennifer R. Blake & Carey Peters. Seated: Jeffrey Landman & Micah McCain.
Bottom: Back Row: Jeffrey Landman, Carey Peters with Gregory Nabours on keyboard.
Front Row: Jennifer R. Blake & Micah McCain.
The Celebration Theatre production of [title of show] is presented in association with David Elzer, under the direction of Michael A. Shepperd and producers Jim Halloran and Tijuana Gray. Music and lyrics are by Jeff Bowen and the book is by Hunter Bell. Choreography is by Ameenah Kaplan and musical direction is by Greg Nabours (who also plays the keyboard on stage as "Larry"). The cast includes Jennifer R. Blake*, Jeffrey Landman*, Micah McCain, Carey Peters* with understudies Michael Joyce, Kerri-Anne Lavin*, and Cindy Sciacca.
*Member of Actor's Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
Performances continue through Sunday, September 5. Performances are on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. and are all priced at $30.
For tickets or information, call 323-957-1884 or visit the web site at www.celebrationtheatre.com. The Celebration Theatre is located at 7051B Santa Monica Boulevard, in Hollywood.