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A CurtainUp Review
[title of show]
—original review by Elyse Sommer
When a show announces itself in lower case letters with a bracketed name tag that's the equivalent of TBA [to be announced], my too cute and precociously charming for words antenna tends to go into alert mode. I didn't see the Festival production of [title of show], the latest small cast, one-man band musical to land on an off-Broadway stage, but this incarnation does indeed have a whiff of precociously charming overkill.
In addition to the nebulous naming conceit, [title of show] this autobiographical musical is stuffed with enough obscure allusions to make it a quiz game to delight the rather rarefied universe of show biz insiders, but it is likely to be less amusing and more of a head scratcher for anyone not quite so show business obsessed and knowledgeable. That makes [title of show] a rather daring enterprise for a theater like the Vineyard which caters to a wide range of discerning theater goers -- not just a specialized audience segment.
Though disarmingly simple, [title of show] isn't quite daring enough to be the ultimate, cutting edge new version of Judy and Mickey's famous and much loved Babes In Arms. Stuffed as it is with arcane as well as up-to-the-momement show biz trivia, it feels too insubstantial to appeal to more than a niche audience. At the performance I attended there was a distinct divide between the older and mostly sober faced audience members and the hysterically appreciative thirty somethings who predominated.
To my knowledge this is the first professional Off-Broadway production that isn't just a transfer from the two-year-old New York Music Festival (like Altar Boyz and the more recent I Love You Because), but one that is actually about the process of submitting a script to the Festival, having it presented, reviewed and possibly move on to a more durable professional life. And, while computer screens and internet chat rooms have been incorporated into a fair number of plays, this is also the first show to pay homage to an internet gossip page where theater generally, and musical theater in particular, are discussed passionately and ad infinitum. On the night I saw [title of show] it was obvious that many of these chatterati were in attendance, thrilled to have their very own two minutes of off-Broadway fame -- whooping it up and applauding every insider allusion and song.
The show has an impromptu aura of Seinfeld-like grown-ups into lots of navel gazing and still living like kids. The staging is bare bones -- a cast of four that includes song and lyric writer Jeff Bowen and librettist Hunter Bell playing themselves as well as Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff (also playing themselves); with props consisting of four chairs and a keyboard manned by musical director and arranger Larry Pressgrove. Unlike Seinfeld and company's show about nothing, Bowen and Bell do have a theme that applies to all who dream of doing something they love. For that matter it's a dual theme: First, if you want to pursue a creative dream, forget your fear of failing and go for it; second, if it looks as if you've grabbed the brass ring, don't let those who profess to know more than you make you change things so that it's more commercial but no longer your baby.
The story is developed mostly through a baker's dozen of songs that are pleasantly melodic if not especially memorable, but with lyrics that cover a lot of territory in terms of journeying through the whole process of a casually conceived collaboration to its miracle of miracles success. The spoken text involves phone calls and meetings, first about plans for submitting something for the festival, then doing it and, finally, dealing with the post festival strategies for taking their baby to the next level.
The nonmusical segments also include that by now all too familiar device of dialogue delivered via an answering machine -- in this case, various actresses phone in their excuses for not being able to be part of Hunter and Jeff's show (here, as in the many references to show business events, people and places, the callers' names aren't all going to ring a bell for casual theater goers -- though there are some funny bits like Victoria Clark, the current star of Light in the Piazza talking about her problems as a soccer mom and Emily Skinner saying she's available for the role now played by Heidi Blickenstaff who was once was a replacement for Skinner).
The performances are casual and quite winning, with Susan Blackwell's acting the most nuanced and Heidi Blickenstaff contributing the big belt factor to the singing. Michael Berresse, best known as a dancer, directs and choreographs. While the Vineyard stage is big enough for some complicated choreography the dance routines here match the bare bones staging. Though Beresse keeps the show moving along, the frequent song finales that leave the foursome frozen like a John Rogers group sculpture and the telephone answering machine blackouts tend to wear out their welcome.
In the final analysis, this song driven lesson plan for how to put on a musical may draw enough wannabe actors, writers, musicians and producers to keep the Vineyard filled for the length of its run. Unlike Avenue Q, which was cute and charming but not too much so to move from the Vineyard to Broadway (where it's still doing very well), [title of show] strikes me as way too inbred to travel any further. Neither did it have me cracking up as often as I was clearly intended to do. I'll therefore leave the last word to a man I talked to on the way to the subway who described himself as "a committed show queen and avid lurker" at Talking Broadway's chat board:" ;It was great -- well, okay, maybe not great, but I haven't laughed so much in a long while. With all the crap that life in New York deals you, that's enough for me."
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