Inventive musical '[title of show]' gets area premiere from Signature Theatre
On paper, “[title of show]” sounds like a bad dream you might have after swigging too many mocha lattes in the East Village: two New York buddies sit around trying to create an entry for the annual New York Music Theatre Festival; they end up writing a “musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical.”
Well, two longtime, theater-bitten friends – Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen – really did just that. The result, which had a decent run on and off-Broadway (winning awards for the latter), is an exceedingly clever, instantly likable piece, qualities reconfirmed by the snappy production the Signature Theatre has provided for “[title of show]” -- its area premiere.
The musical turns the theatrical process on its head and takes the venerable let’s-put-on-a-show device for a wild spin. At once smart and smart-alecky, self-conscious and self-confident, "[title of show]" is a nonstop send-up and mash-up of just about everything related to the Great White Way, spiced by wry references to failed productions (and, for reasons only the creators could explain, a mention of Shields and Yarnell, those mundane mimes from the '70s).
Except for a draggy spot near the end, when things turn a bit serious, the structure of the intermission-less show
functions remarkably well, weaving in and out of the real, the half-real and imaginary with great skill.
Bell's dialogue offers inspired and often amusingly salty wordplay, capturing the natural cadences of a conversation among 20-somethings so perfectly that it is possible at times to forget that there’s an actual script. (You’ve got to love a show that can toss out such a line as: “Trannies need their protein, too.”)
Bowen’s more-than-serviceable songs are enlivened by clever turns of melodic line and harmony, occasionally riffing off of overly familiar patterns from today’s trendy musicals, and his lyrics can be awfully inventive.
Signature Theatre’s tightly meshed cast includes James Gardiner as the heavy-dreaming Hunter. The actor’s coincidental appropriateness for the role is the fact that he and a buddy actually wrote a musical called “Glory Days” that was launched by Signature Theatre and went to Broadway, where it suffered the ignominy of opening and closing on the same night in 2008. It gives this production a delicious little inside joke. Gardiner, who displayed his solid vocal chops in Baltimore earlier this season in “A Tribute to Irving Berlin” at Everyman Theatre, sings winningly and creates a spot-on characterization. His wild tangent as a blank paper muse is a highpoint.
The slightly more down-to-earth Jeff is deftly, drolly, disarmingly portrayed by Sam Ludwig, whose reedy voice seems tailor-made for the score. As the friends who lend a hand to the guys' project, Jenna Sokolowski (Susan) and Erin Driscoll (Heidi -- she makes it easy to imagine Reese Witherspoon in the role) fill in the picture with dynamic, nuance-rich performances. As Larry, the unflappable accompanist, Gabriel Mangiante -- the production's music director -- provides assured work at the keyboard.
Director Matthew Gardiner (James' twin brother and the director of that Berlin show at Everyman) gets superb timing and supple interaction from the ensemble. Gardiner also devised the kinetic choreography, which has the cast overusing certain steps and hand gestures, but still manages to look fresh and witty throughout.
Adam Koch’s spare set design (neatly lit by Mark Lanks) and Kristopher Castle’s perfectly attuned costume design provide the finishing touches in this affectionate, invigorating staging of a show that, like one of those Russian nesting dolls, keeps revealing new angles and rewards with every twist.
“[title of show]” runs through June 27.
PHOTOS BY KARIN COOPER COURTESY OF SIGNATURE THEATRE: Top picture: James Gardiner (left) and Sam Ludwig. Second picture, from left: Ludwig, Erin Driscoll, Gardiner, Jenna Sokolowski.
Photo credit: Karin Cooper