NYMF REVIEW: [title of show]
Rent's subtitle is "The Musical for People Who Hate Musicals." 42nd Street's subtitle is "The Musical for People Who Love Musicals." [title of show]'s subtitle, then, should be something along the lines of "The Musical for People Who Are Obsessed With Musicals." After all, when a show not only has its cast perform an energetic cheer listing the names of flop musicals, but has a character moments later answer the question of "Will our audience know any of these shows?" with "Our audience will know it's Bagels and Yox, not Bagels and Lox," any devotee of the genre must feel honored to be so recognized.
[title of show] may well be a first: it is an original musical about its own creation. Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, playing themselves, want to write a new musical for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. With nothing better to submit, they decide to document, musically, all the challenges in writing a new musical on a tight deadline. Joined by two female friends (Susan Blackwell, also playing herself, and Stacia), the creators keep careful track of their often hilarious conversations and insightful debates about the hardships of making and marketing art and the very nature of creation itself. As intelligent and lovable as they are quirky, the characters banter, bicker, tackle self-doubt and other neuroses (here aptly dubbed "Vampires"), and debate the many problems inherent in creating art and the artistic risks of gaining commercial interest in their project. Thematically, it's closer to Sunday in the Park With George than anything else, but with the humor, irreverence, affection, and general mood of The Musical of Musicals: The Musical.
By necessity, the show is both self-referential and referential of other musicals, but with such a gleeful spirit that one would be hard-pressed to begrudge the in-jokes and clichés. This is, again, a musical for people who are obsessed with musicals, and the sly (and often not-so-sly) recognition of every device inherent in the genre is dizzyingly funny. This is a show that aims high and, in nearly every scene, scores a comic bull's-eye.
When the play misses, however, it misses big. An "emotional" song early in the show serves no purpose other than to show off Heidi Blickenstaff's impressive voice. There is no buildup to the moment, so while the song is certainly pretty and has potential, it lacks any emotional kick. An even more pointless (and painfully long) sequence in which the characters act out an earlier musical that they'd written is just filler that brings the plot to a screeching halt, and worse, is decidedly unfunny. Compounding the sin, the creators are aware of the pointlessness of the moment, and acknowledge it in the script. "But it will add ten minutes to the show!" is the reply. "Thirteen if we sit around and discuss if it's appropriate or not!" Recognizing one's sins does not absolve one of committing them, and the same holds true for musicals, too. With these two moments cut, the show would indeed be shorter, but much tighter and stronger.
Fortunately, most of [title of show] is very strong. Bell's book is topical, clever, and witty, and nicely references back on both itself and on theatrical conventions we know from countless other shows. Bowen's score is very good, and pays homage to many other musicals both classic and new.
Broadway star Michael Berresse proves a brilliant choice for director, and does very good work in his debut. Having worked in many musicals, he knows how to honor and spoof the many theatrical conventions Bowden and Bell musically parody in their script, and keeps the humor up.
Playing themselves (with the exception of Heidi Blickenstaff, smoothly stepping in as the sassy Stacia), the cast has the camaraderie of longtime friends and collaborators. Their offstage affection for each other translates onstage to excellent chemistry and timing. The comic moments of the show are certainly stronger than the dramatic ones, but of course, not every examination of the art of making art needs to be a drama. Creation can be funny, and now we have proof.