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A CurtainUp Review
What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling

A Second Life for What's That Smell
The show garnered enough positive reviews and box office success to seed a second run. This time at New World Stages 340 West 50th Street 212/2396200 where it begins its second life on November 1st. Performances: Monday evening, and Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00pm, with Saturday matinees at 2:00pm and Sunday performances at 3:00pm and 7:00pm. Tuesdays are dark. Tickets are $55 and $65.

Some {New Yorkers} are haves and some have-nots
But all have noses
And at any given moment
Someone's asking,
What's that Smell?

—from the title song from the fictional wannabe hit show composer Jacob Sterling. It typifies the range and quality of his oeuvre. And according to Leonard Swagg who's interviewing him for his cable show it's an amazing "alchemy of transforming maternal rage into a probing human essay."
Peter Bartlett and David Pittu in What's That Smell
Peter Bartlett and David Pittu
(Photo: Doug Hamilton)
In ever hopeful composer-lyricist Jacob Sterling David Pittu has created a droll alter ego for himself. The prolific Jacob ("I sometimes feel sick from all the music inside me") is a character who enables Pittu to roll his considerable and diverse talents into one hilarious package. Pittu not only stars in this affectionate spoof of show business and would-be musical hit makers, but wrote the script and the lyrics for Randy Redd's music. What's more, he nimbly co-directs himself, co-star Peter Bartlett (Neil Pepe co-directs) and a chorus consisting of former Atlantic Theater students Brandon Goodman and Matt Schock, and Helene Yorke.

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.

What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling
Conceived by David Pittu
Co-directed by David Pittu & Neil Pepe.
Music by Randy Redd
Lyrics by David Pittu
Cast: Peter Bartlett (Leonard), David Pittu (Jacob), Brandon Goodman, Matt Schock, Helene Yorke (Chorus Members).
Scenic design: Takeshi Kata
Costume design: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting design: Matthew Richards
Sound design: Jill BC DuBoff
Projection design: Dustin O'Neill
Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission Atlantic Stage 2 330 West 16th Street
From 9/02/08; opening 9/10/08; closing 9/28/08-extended to 10/05/08.
Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm; Saturday matinees at 2pm and Sundays at 3pm
Tickets: $35 212/279/4200
The show will re-open at New World Stages on West 50th Street, beginning November 1st. Though first an open-ended run, it will close 12/28/08
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