BWW Review: Street Theater Company's Ultra-Cool, Ultra-Insider(y) Take on [title of show]
During my last semester of college, I committed to writing a weekly column for the student newspaper (which followed three semesters on the staff, culminating in being editor-in-chief - including an experiment of daily publication for a brief period of time) and I discovered, as all columnists most certainly do, that it is oftentimes difficult to come up with things to write about that are at all interesting, entertaining or intriguing. Then one day, in desperation, I decided to write about having nothing whatsoever to write about...
It was a dark day in journalism, dear readers, and a professor raked me over the coals rather than eviscerate me which may have led to criminal charges for him when, indeed, I was deemed the criminal for being so lax, so lazy and so damn stupid for trying such an embarrassing stunt. It would be nice to say I learned my lesson, but I tried the gambit at least one other time in my storied career when the stories simply would not come and, again, I was called lax, lazy and stupid by my harshest critic (who is me, truth be told).
Why am I writing about my obvious journalistic shortcomings now for what could be construed as the third time? Street Theatre Company's production of the Hunter Bell-Jeff Bowen musical [title of show] opens tonight to run through June 23 - and last night I was part of the preview audience, having been invited to come review the show for those of you still reading (all the while scoffing at my apparent self-indulgence and wishing I would just get to the damn, convoluted point).
Bell and Bowen's show is charming, laden with insider information and self-referential asides that makes it an ideal choice for theater folk and other industry insiders (although the term "industry insider" clearly sounds kind of boastful and arch in a town where it is insanely difficult to make a living in the theater), but which makes it a hard sell to your average, run-of-the-mill (if you will excuse the phrase) theater goer who either (A) isn't a gay man who spent his formative years poring over theatrical lore and listening to cast albums in hope of escaping a humdrum life in the provinces, or (B) a self-described theatrical nerd who loves to pore over stagebound trivia and arcane facts about plays and musical theater because you suck at relationships with other human beings or consider yourself athletically challenged.
Sure, we're resorting to stereotypes here, but [title of show] actually reveres those stereotypes and celebrates nerdy theater aficionados with affection and deference. If anything, [title of show] is a musical conceived and created for those of us who love theater so much that we can reel off statistics just as easily as any rabid baseball fan can recall who played what position for a particular team in 1953.
According to theater legend [title of show] was borne out of a decision by its pair of imaginative creators to come up with an entry for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Having nothing in the hopper they felt deserved entry into the competition and with only three weeks to come up with something - and, lord knows, there were so many other things contending for their attention, including the release of the first season of Wonder Woman (starring Lynda Carter) on DVD, adequate time for masturbatory fantasies, and ordering takeout to avoid "hangry" texting and tweeting - they decided to write about the process of trying to create an original musical from whole cloth, as it were, and so everything they said or did would be fodder for performance when the time comes.
Thus, the two longtime friends set out to write a musical about two longtime friends writing a musical about two longtime friends writing a musical...
It was a clever and creative choice, even if my college journalism professor would likely call Bell and Bowen (and their fellow collaborators and performers Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell) lax, lazy and just plain stupid. After all, the script was chosen for NYMF and subsequently played off-Broadway before making its Broadway debut during a particularly uneventful and paltry season on the Great White Way during which original musicals were hard-to-find.
Eventually, the script made its way to Nashville and Street Theatre Company where artistic director Randy Craft has mounted a winning and engaging production that is sure to delight the local theaterati, thanks to his efforts along with those of musical director Rollie Mains (who becomes the show's fifth character even as he accompanies the four principals) and the talented quartet of Ryan Greenawalt (as Hunter), Shane Kopischke (as Jeff), LaDarra Jackal (as Heidi) and Katie Bruno (as Susan).
It's hard to imagine any other four actors in the roles now that we've actually seen Greenawalt, Kopischke, Jackal and Bruno in the roles, thanks to the fact that each gives a particularly noteworthy, and we daresay no-holds-barred, performance in [title of show]. Craft and Mains put them through their paces and each of the actors respond with enough energy and commitment to make the roles their own, so to speak, even while they play actors playing themselves in a musical they wrote about themselves. (It is no where near as confusing as it may sound).
The songs are cleverly written, even if hard to recall - which may be attributed to my advanced age or the fact there are so many of them to remember, even if it's been less than 12 hours since seeing the show. They are presented with a knowing sense of style, with a wink and a nod and a tongue-in-cheek attitude that belies the obvious affection with which they were conceived.
Greenawalt shines as Hunter, showing off a good deal of versatility as an actor that is often over-shadowed by his gorgeous voice (frankly, with a voice as glorious as his, it may be easy to overlook the fact that he is also an accomplished and talented actor). Kopischke, on summer break from nearby Austin Peay State University, commands his place onstage with a strong leading man performance that bodes well for his future endeavors (I first saw Kopischke onstage when he was a pubescent young actor at Dickson's Renaissance Center, playing in all sorts of musical theater offerings). Jackal, who primarily gets cast in character roles, shows off her impressive vocal chops while reminding everyone within the sound of her voice the true range of her theatrical skills - and she is every inch the leading lady (with apologies to every woman who might be offended by that moniker). Finally, Bruno is given the opportunity to lay her mad comedic skills, superb timing and strong vocals on the stage for all to see and admire (even if she once had the temerity to ask me where she might find something I'd written about her).
Act one of [title of show], at the final preview (and/or final dress rehearsal, whichever you prefer) glided along at a terrific pace, while act two, quite honestly, seemed to drag despite the combined energy of the four solid performers, although we suspect that may be corrected for the show's multi-week run. And although we normally eschew any entertainment that thrills and delights the young hipsters among the theaterati so much (we got a major whiff of self-congratulatory glee among other audience members last night), we nonetheless can heartily endorse this latest theatrical endeavor from Messrs. Craft, Mains and company and you owe it to yourself, as an industry insider as it were, to go see the fucking show (which features a crackerjack set design by Will Butler and lighting design by Katie Gant).
And while we're at it, you can (and probably will) write your own review on social media to spread the word about [title of show], but we are compelled to point out that we may be the only one among you who spent time as a fellow of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center. So, there, Dr. Himebaugh...who's lax, lazy and just plain stupid now?
[title of show]. Music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen. Book by Hunter Bell. Directed by Randy Craft. Musical direction by Rollie Mains. Presented by Street Theatre Company, at Holy Trinity Community Church, Nashville. Through June 23. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission). For details, go to www.streettheatrecompany.org.