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Review: M.A.D. Theatre of Tampa Presents the Quirky [TITLE OF SHOW] at the Shimberg

HUNTER: I'm getting nervous that our play is a little doughnuts for dinner.
SUSAN: Is that a show?
HUNTER: No, doughnuts for dinner? You know, it sounds like a good idea but thirty minutes later you're hungry for something a little meatier.

Watching M.A.D. Theatre's production of Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell's [TITLE OF SHOW], I was reminded of the groundbreaking Eighties sit-com, "It's Garry Shandling's Show." The brilliant, smartly hilarious Shandling, may he rest in peace, created a cult show that was purely self-referential, from actors breaking the fourth wall to its famous theme song: "This is the theme to Garry's show, this is the theme to Garry's show...I'm almost halfway finished, how do you like it so far...?"

[TITLE OF SHOW] is self-referential in the way Shandling's innovative TV series was. It focuses on the life of a musical, from creation to Off-Broadway and beyond, featuring song titles like "Untitled Opening Number," "I'm Playing Me," "Filling Out the Form," "Development Medley," and "Awkward Photo Shoot." The characters' names are Jeff, Hunter, Heidi and Susan, which also just so happen to be the names of the original actors who portrayed those parts (Jeff Bowen, Hunter Bell, Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell). So something minor is missing with the novelty and concept when the original actors don't get to play themselves as the creators of a musical about a group of actors playing themselves creating a musical (if that makes any sense). But I guess you would have to board a time machine and fly back to New York City in 2008 for that to happen. (To understand what I mean here, imagine someone else playing Garry Shandling in "It's Garry Shandling's Show"; I know Bowen & Company don't have the same name power of Shandling, but even so, it wouldn't be the same.) Still, with M.A.D. Theatre's production, we have four wonderfully talented local souls portraying Jeff, Hunter, Heidi and Susan, so that makes up for quite a lot.

I love M.A.D. Theatre because they pride themselves on taking artistic risks. They trust audiences, and I know of no other local community theatre that would dare do [TITLE OF SHOW]. While most community theatres want to tackle the safe world of Lerner and Loewe, or pick something that's good box office (Rodgers and Hammerstein's Sound of Music, anyone?), M.A.D. takes ballsy risks by doing a show with four Seinfeldian characters, a minimal set featuring four chairs, and one keyboard. And God bless them for that.

[TITLE OF SHOW] is a quirky, funny, leisurely-paced show pointed toward a very specific audience. If you wait in the rain for Sutton Foster to emerge from a show just to get an autograph, if you sing Hamilton in your sleep, if John Cameron Mitchell or Marin Mazzie are your heroes, and if you know the words to Henry, Sweet, Henry, then this is your type show. If you love edgy, darkly funny Broadway or Off-Broadway shows--like American Psycho or Heathers--then this will definitely appeal to your warped sense of humor as well. And if you are a cultist of failed musicals like Carrie or Kwamina, then put down your copy of Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops and run to the Shimberg for a show that celebrates all of that.

However, on the flip side, if you like your shows old fashioned with a distinct plot and elaborate Phantom of the Opera-like sets, and if you find Meredith Wilson a little too rollicking for your tastes, then this is not the show for you. If Song of Norway is your touchstone, then seek out another community theatre. And if Broadway musicals aren't your thing, then why are you still reading this on BWW?

M.A.D. Theatre likes to push the envelope, and with [TITLE OF SHOW], they have gleefully ripped up that envelope and stomped it to the ground. It's adult fare with plenty of f-words and sexual dialogue (all very funny) that makes it a little too risqué for the kiddos (okay, a lot too risqué). But for those who love musical theatre and want a good time celebrating its behind-the-scenes creation, then this is your baby.

The cast is quite good. Starring as Jeff, the composer who is also a Grammar Nazi, music director Peter A. Belk does well in creating an everyday sort of guy. Think of a Jerry Seinfeld who can sing. As Hunter, his sidekick, Aaron T. Castle is an energetic hoot with glorious comic timing. Laura Marie Folsom makes for a marvelous Heidi (her "A Way Back to Then" is gorgeously sung).

My favorite in the cast is the dynamic Karli Marie Gundersen's Susan. Angst has never been so much fun, and in Gundersen's hands, it's a riot. Her "Die, Vampire, Die!" and "Secondary Characters" (a duet with Folsom's Heidi) were stellar.

There is a fifth character, one who barely speaks: Arnel Sensen's hilariously dry Larry the Pianist. He's a one-man band and keeps the show moving along.

Anthony Paul Gilkinson's direction is appropriately loose and not nearly as taut as it has been in other shows he's guided, but that works with the material here. The staging of the actors showcases the usual Gilkinson creativity, and some of the numbers, especially "September Song" and "Monkeys and Playbills," are especially inspired. However, there is a moment after the Off-Broadway montages where the characters go back to their mundane lives, and the show becomes quite mundane as well. When the characters are bored, so are we. Even though [TITLE OF SHOW] does not call for an intermission, one would have helped because the audience had been sitting for 90 minutes straight and the pacing in this portion of the show (between the mid-section and the end) suffered greatly.

Thankfully, one of the finest numbers in the production, "Nine People's Favorite Thing," is right near the end and it saves the latter part of the show: "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing..."

[TITLE OF SHOW] was not originally planned to be M.A.D. Theatre's springtime show. Into the Woods, which was slated for this slot, didn't pan out, which is fine with me. I have seen four or five versions of Into the Woods in 2015-2016 alone, from professional companies to high schools, so I don't need to see it again anytime soon. [TITLE OF SHOW], on the other hand, is never done locally, especially by a community theatre. Until now. So I'm very happy I finally was able to see it after hearing the original cast for years. So take advantage of it, musical theatre lovers and Shields & Yarnell fans (you'll have to see the show to understand that allusion); venture to the Shimberg and experience this no-frills production. It may or may not be your favorite thing, but I bet it's better than your ninth favorite thing.

[TITLE OF SHOW] plays until April 17th at the Shimberg Theatre in the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, please call (813) 229-STAR (7827).

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