Review - [title of show]: [obscure showtune reference]
As someone who gets a euphoric high from that strict-tempo ritard the orchestra takes toward the end of Fade Out-Fade In's overture, who considers the Broadway cast album of One Night Stand to be the perfect road trip CD and who more than once has been moved to get in front of a mirror and mime Nancy Dussault's performance of "Love Is A Chance" while listening to Bajour, you might expect me to fit snugly into the target audience for [title of show], the musical where conversation between stars/authors Hunter Bell (bookwriter) and Jeff Bowen (composer/lyricist) is peppered with so many obscure (and some not so obscure) musical theatre references that you'd swear you just stumbled into a midnight cabaret act at Don't Tell Mama or The Duplex (a/k/a everyday martini talk at Marie's Crisis). Yes, after months of promotional YouTube videos promising it would happen, the Twenty-First Century's Montgomery and Stone have finally landed their ninety minute musical on Broadway, and to paraphrase what Gracie Allen said about Jumbo, if it continues running for as long as it hasn't been running it should be a great success.
The plot of [title of show] is the same as the history of [title of show], with the omission of a few details here and there. Bowen, the serious minded dreamer, and Bell, the jovial chronic masturbator (hey, it's in the script) play themselves, "Two Nobodies In New York," as the title of a song so bluntly states, who in 2004 learned of the brand new New York Musical Theatre Festival three weeks before the submission deadline. (They never mention the festival by name for some reason, referring to it only as "the festival," which, of course, sets up the hilarity of an Into The Woods bit and since the year 2004 is never mentioned it allows for new references to currently running shows.) Also playing themselves are semi-retired, dry-humored downtown performance art actress Susan Blackwell and Broadway chorus gypsy/understudy Heidi Blickenstaff. As the show chronicles the process by which they create the musical we're watching them perform, they write, rehearse, banter and go off on many tangents in a sparsely furnished New York apartment (designed by Neil Patel) while music director Larry Pressgrove, the sole musician, sits (mostly) unobtrusively upstage, playing the score on an electric keyboard. (I'll leave you in suspense as to whether or not their musical gets accepted by the festival but I suppose I'm not giving anything away by letting you know it eventually makes it to Broadway.)
Director/choreographer Michael Berresse, a slick and polished Broadway song and dance man of high order, appropriately keeps the company's rough edges on display when they start moving their feet to uncomplicated routines. Only Blickenstaff is allowed to show off a snazzy belt and musical comedy sass, while the rest get by on goofy charm and committed enthusiasm. The book scenes glide on the thick chemistry between the foursome.
And while [title of show] is absolutely the type of musical I gladly welcome on Broadway - a show about real human beings that pushes the material and performances center stage without worrying about glitz and glitter (Gee, we haven't had one of those since A Catered Affair) - I wouldn't call it a completely satisfactory effort. In theory, I loved it. In the Lyceum Theatre, I bared with its shortcomings (like a running gag where Bell and Blackwell keep inventing drag queen names like "Minnie Van Rental" and "Tulita Pepsi") and thought it was, on the whole, rather cute, but pulled off with such visible affection for both the material and each other that the experience of watching this company performing [title of show] on Broadway is much more moving and entertaining than [title of show] itself.
Of course, the authors supply built-in explanations for every flaw. The book seems like a first draft that's been slapped together in three weeks? Why yes, that's the plot. Most of the cast lacks polish? Yeah, that's the authenticity. The show seems directed toward a small insider audience without regard for being accessible to the general public? That's the message of the finale!
But while Hunter Bell's free-form book is genial enough and Jeff Bowen's intimate revue style songs are nicely wordy, too much of the show's intended humor is based on merely mentioning lesser-known musicals without having anything clever to say about them. In one song Bowen strings together the names of shows into lyrics like, "He drives by a Steel Pier in Portofino to be The First to hear a Band In Berlin," while corresponding Playbills are flashed on the wall, as if he were Chita Rivera in Bring Back Birdie holding up cleaning products as she sings, "It's a life of JOY, and that's ALL I need."
Too little time is spent detailing what might be the most interesting part of the story, the creation of The [title of show] Show, a series of internet videos, frequently funnier than the musical itself, that substantially helped develop a following even before a Broadway move was in the works and no doubt became a major factor in getting the show to the Lyceum. (Cue the chorus of Harrigan & Hart: "Something new, something different, something never tried before.")
But where [title of show] excels, and it does so very well, is when the jokes are set aside for some real moments of vulnerability. Like when Blackwell describes the voices of self-doubt that stifle creativity. Or when what started out as an artistic venture where the goal was self-expression becomes a possible ticket to Broadway if they're willing to make changes solely for the sake of appealing to the masses. (It's an interesting twist when Bell starts insisting they cut all the insider theatre jokes that they've been making all evening.) In the most effective moment, Blickenstaff sings of being a little girl dancing to Annie in her backyard while Bell describes a playwriting effort at age ten; times when concerns of balancing commercial success with artistic fulfillment were far, far away. And by the time the cast is singing, "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing," in Bowen's closing anthem to cult popularity (sort of a cross between the closing song of Snoopy and that shampoo commercial where you tell two friends and they tell two friends and so on and so on and so on...) you may start wonder whether having your caricature up at Sardi's can provide as great a thrill as having your show card displayed at Joe Allen.