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A CurtainUp Review
What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling
By Elyse Sommer
The amusing conceit is to introduce us to Jacob's life and elusive dream of Broadway success via an in-depth interview with Leonard Swagg, the host of an obscure cable show entitled CLOT—Composers and Lyricists of Tomorrow. Swagg brings to mind James Lipton's Behind the Actors Studio series. But, of course, with Bartlett playing the host, Leonard has a lot less in common with the professorial Lipton than another cable show host — the scintillatingly swishy Mr. Charles of Palm Beach, created by Off-Broadway's Eminence Gay, Paul Rudnik (seen by Curtainup in 3 permutations, — as part of New Century, Rude Entertainment and EST One-Acts).
Pittu's script gives Bartlett plenty of opportunity to adapt the gushing exuberance of Mr. Charles to Leonard. However, the show's heart and soul is Jacob. With an assist from costumer Martin Pakledinaz, Jacob is a head to toe vision of stylish flashiness — from bristle-topped, color streaked hair, to too tight shirt opened to display a chestful of old chains, to a pair of amazing shiny black sneakers with an anagram-like pattern of red dots.
But don't be fooled by the flashy exterior. Pittu plays the fictional emigree from New Jersey and graduate of SPASM (the South Palo Alto School of Music where he chose a musical adaptation of Private Benjamin as his master's thesis) with an understated brilliance that softens the sharp angles of carricature. And so, for all the stereotypical shtick, this is portrait of a very human, if woefully self-deluded, character.
Jacob's constantly short-circuited career may be a blessing in disguise for music loverss, but his passion for musical theater validates a quote from, of all people, Marcel Proust that's at one point projected on an upstage screen: "That bad music is played, is sung more often and more passionately than good, is why it has also gradually become more infused with men's dreams and tears. Treat it therefore with respect. Its place, insignificant in the history of art, is immense in the sentimental history of social groups."
Don't get me wrong. The endorsement of Jacob's passion for music (if not the quality of his compositions) from such a lofty source notwithstanding, this is essentially an absurdist and absurdly amusing piece that defies genre classification. The Jacob Sterling song cycle excerpts of which Pittu as Jacob sings to piano accompaniment illustrate and flesh out the this-is-your-life interview but what we have is not so much a musical as a live L.O. L. tv special without commercials.
Takeshi Kata has created a handsome bi-level TV studio setting —an upstage area framed by a show-biz-y proscenium where host and interview subject sit in chairs and introduce us to the r'aison d'etre for the interview—Jacob's soon to open show, hopefully a breakthrough in an heretofore ever budding but never blossoming career. . . with a downstage area to accommodate the baby grand for the sing and tell part of the interview.
The exchanges between Leonard and Jacob provide Pittu's satirical bow and arrow with a wide range of targets: technology (Jacob loves technology but Leonard complains about cellphones going off in the theater-- especially one that recently went off in the pocket of an actor on the stage whose wife was going into labor) . . . theatrical chat groups on the internet. . . disapproving parents (it was his mother whose turned up nose at the smells assaulting her during a visit to New York who inspired the titular song which in turn leads him to observe that " New York City seems to me to be to the composer what fruit is to the painter"). . . sexual identity (Jacob moved to New York to experiment sexually but "George Orwell didn't prepare me for the two international crises under way at that time. . .the double crisis of AIDS and the British takeover of the American musical theater").
Finally the script uses 9/11 to take aim at the commercialism of the American Theater. Though that tragedy derailed yet another potential Jacob Sterling hit, Madame Death, it also inspired the intrepid composer to launch his latest (and breakthrough?) show, Shopping Out Loud.
Ideally, the show would clock in at sixty minutes as most TV specials do, which would be possible if Pittu hadn't written in a chorus of peppy young performers to expand the final segments. Good as this trio is, the chorus isn't really needed to make What's That Smell come up smelling like roses.