Any antiques expert will tell you not to overpolish your valuables: The patina of imperfection is sometimes highly desirable. Were there no theatre experts around to tell the same to Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell?
When Bowen and Bell premiered their psychotically self-referential [title of show] in 2004's inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival, they garnered some positive reviews and some real audience interest. And why not? A show entirely about the creation of itself over a frantic three-week period being produced in the very festival it was written for? You can't get more verisimilitudinous than that.
Yet wouldn't what made the show so cracklingly original also doom its future? Wouldn't removing it from the Festival, its sole reason for being, and showing it elsewhere cause it to implode? Worse, wouldn't (gasp) rewrites, (double gasp) workshops, and (faint) meddlesome producers transform the show from an off-the-cuff lark into exactly the opposite of what it was always intended to be?
Sadly, the answer to all these questions is yes. The show now at the Vineyard Theatre might be called [title of show], and it might star all the same performers (Bowen, Bell, Susan Blackwell, and Heidi Blickenstaff). But it bears only a superficial resemblance to the one that twisted minds and, after a fashion, touched hearts at NYMF.
Now, Bowen and Bell want you to think their show just doesn't play by the rules. But the original version truly had no rules. It was the kind of show that would slide into an uproariously self-indulgent Jason Robert Brown-style soul-searching song, reenact a NYMF press conference a few scenes later, and climax with a 15-minute non-sequitur entitled Retarded Girl: The Musical, a pre-existing mini-musical interpolated to pad the show's running time and application demo recording. Even when [title of show] didn't work, there was never any way to know what would happen next.
That's no longer the case. It's now not only utterly predictable in its unpredictability, it's slavishly devoted to the convention of being unconventional. That doesn't hurt Bell's book, or at least the first two-thirds of it, much: It still so audaciously forces the show to fold in on itself that laughter is often inevitable. Bowen's songs, if not in the same league, are pleasingly quirky diversions, with entries ranging from the mock-inspirational ("Die, Vampire, Die") to the outright parodic ("An Original Musical," a riff on Schoolhouse Rock).
But no longer does everything feel spontaneous or effortless. Everyone labors to sell the jokes, sell the songs, and sell the selling of a show that can't be slick, can't be neat and tidy, and can't be mass-marketed and still work. Bell, Bowen, and director-choreographer Michael Berresse have done so much to make the show a pressed-and-powdered people pleaser that they've exorcised the vagabond soul that made it distinctive in the first place.
What's more, in trying to keep the show fresh and relevant, they've also updated it to reflect the show's post-NYMF life. The show still runs 90 minutes, but despite numerous cuts and rewrites (most of the NYMF-specific material is gone, as is Retarded Girl), it feels looser and more bloated, the new and painfully unfunny second half charting the Festival and beyond as misguided and nonsensical as the creation section is outlandish.
It's weighed down by a contrived subplot about Bowen and Bell replacing Blickenstaff with Emily Skinner: Unfortunately, it didn't happen. Unless, that is, it happened during both the show's creation (per the NYMF version) as well as after, which seems unlikely.
And that's the real problem with [title of show] today: You can no longer believe it. Maybe it was always full of lies, but it used to feel true. Now, it doesn't feel like anything. There's a set (by Neil Patel) that strives to look like it's not a set. There's a group of actors striving to act like they're not acting like they're in a musical. There's an onstage musical director (Larry Pressgrove) dragged into the action who can't act at all. Everyone's trying too hard to make the show work. They used to not have to.
The lone element that's retained its quirky charm is Bell: He's a delightful, red-headed teddy bear of a presence who disarms with an innocence that makes the show's ruthlessly calculated randomness seem organic. He's also a direct link to the hope, promise, and untapped energy that coursed through most NYMF 2004 productions, even the ones with creators who knew in their hearts they would go no further.
Bell and Bowen probably thought the same, and who could blame them? Theirs was a risk that risked nothing, something that would be fun for a while but not consume their lives. Yet when they were offered the chance to build on it, despite its foundation of quicksand, they couldn't pass it up. Money, fame, and respectability can be hard to resist, and so what if they have to sacrifice the show to get it?
That's why it's hard to take the show's new finale seriously: "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing / Than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing," the actors sing over and over, as though they'll eventually convince themselves and us. It's a lovely sentiment, but hardly believable given what [title of show] has become.
[title of show]