In his gushy liner notes for the 2006 cast recording of [title of show], noted playwright Terrence McNally praises the new musical for restoring “our faith in the possibilities of theatre” and places its concern for the future of the American Musical on a par with curing cancer.
To quote the late Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know”.
He doesn’t suggest that composer Jeff Bowen and playwright Hunter Bell can actually walk on water, but maybe he just ran out of space. In reality, the goals of [title of show] are far more modest and for the most part both the show and the current production achieve them brilliantly.
On paper and CD, the idea of [title of show] looks a bit flimsy: a talented songwriter and author want to write a new, completely original musical but can’t come up with a topic, so they decide (in the song “Two Nobodies from New York”) to write a new musical about a talented songwriter and author trying to write a new musical. The result is a show that’s about only itself and its creators – “talking to a mirror talking to himself”, to quote A Neil Innes lyric. It’s a potentially deadly idea if not handled with skill.
Skill, happily, is something Mr. Bowen and Mr. Bell clearly have in abundance, along with talent, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and a true love of musical theatre. As a result [title of show], despite the occasional misstep, is generally very funny, entertaining and, at times, even touching.
The non-stop musical theatre in-jokes are clever and nearly always hilarious, as are the many gags about the theatrical process itself. This is a show that cheerfully demolishes the “fourth wall” at every opportunity in an effort to make us aware of how that process works. [title of show] also offers, in songs like “Nine People’s Favorite Thing”, some thoughtful commentary on the dilemmas creative folk face in balancing the need for commercial success with the desire for artistic integrity, as well as insight into every artist’s (and, for that matter, every human’s) battles with self-doubt (“Die, Vampire, Die!”) and the difficulty of recapturing a dream lost (“A Way Back to Then”).
In short, if you’re a lover of musical theatre and/or a performing artist yourself (I confess to both), this is certainly a “must see”. And even if you’re neither of those, you’ll probably find it hard to resist the exuberance, energy and talent of the five-person cast.
St. Louis’s own Ben Nordstrom is a comic dynamo as St. Louis’s own Hunter Bell, nicely contrasting with Benjamin Howes’s appropriately restrained Jeff. If, as the real Hunter Bell writes, [title of show] “really does represent our lives”, then Jeff Bowen would appear to be the ice to Mr. Bell’s fire. It’s the classic straight man/funny guy dynamic and it works quite well.
There’s a similar relationship between the two women who complete the cast. Stephanie D’Abruzzo is utterly charming as original cast member Susan Blackwell who, at least in her fictional incarnation, is a funny, self-assured woman coming to terms with the conflict between her unsatisfying “real world” job and her desire to act. Ms. D’Abruzzo is doing so many interesting things on stage, verbally and otherwise, that she sometimes gets perilously close to stealing focus without, happily, ever doing so.
Amy Justman is Heidi Blickenstaff, the only actor in the original show who actually had Broadway experience. Ironically, she is the least confident of the bunch. Ms. Justman is well nigh perfect in the part, and provides a nice balance to Ms. D’Abruzzo’s more eccentric Susan.
Music director and keyboard player David Horstman – well known in local theatre circles for his fine work at the 88s – is music director and keyboard player Larry (originally Kansas native Larry Pressgrove). Mr. Horstman doesn’t have many lines – something that becomes one of many running gags in the show. That obliges him to do the most difficult kind of acting – reacting in character. He pulls it off nicely.
Scenic designer Scott C. Neale is responsible for the small but tidy New York apartment set. It effectively establishes the scene and mood while still leaving lots of space for the high-energy blocking and semi-choreography.
The book of [title of show] could use a bit of work. The scene in which we’re first introduced to Heidi and Susan fell a bit flat, I thought, and material chronicling the show’s fortunes after its first performance at the New York Musical Theatre Festival felt somewhat tacked-on and repetitious. That said if, as its Wikipedia page states, [title of show] is a “post-modern work-in-progress”, then we can probably expect it to evolve as it makes its way around the regional theatre circuit. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the current production and local reactions to it – including, for all I know, the works I’m typing right now – popping up in a future performance.
The bottom line is that [title of show] is a very smart and funny musical that mostly avoids the pitfalls that come with this sort of self-referential humor. If you have any interest in musical theatre at all, you really must see it. Be aware, though, that the book and songs contain plenty of what the press release calls “adult language” (and I call “the way my friends and I talk all the time”), so it’s officially recommended for “those 16 years of age and older”. Performances continue in the Rep Studio Theatre through January 31st; for more information, you may call 314-968-4925 or visit the Rep’s web site at repstl.org.
To learn more about the ongoing multi-media project that [title of show] has apparently become, check out the official web site at titleofshow.com as well as (stop me if this gets too dizzying) the [title of show] show on Youtube. It’s nice to know that, despite branching out into “one hundred people’s ninth favorite thing” projects like Disney’s Villains Tonight! and “a new half-hour sitcom” for ABC, [title of show]’s creators remain, to some extent, true to their unique project.