Regular theatregoers know that the most dangerous thing in the theatre isn't what's being performed - it's the audience. Coughing. Shifting. Whispering. Narrating the show. Talking on cellphones. Complaining, whining, rustling, eating . . . . Isn't it the case, more often than it probably should be, that what's happening in the house is more of a show than what's transpiring onstage?
That's never been more true than with Transport Group's latest production, The Audience. Set entirely during a performance of a Broadway musical, the play is concerned only with what happens among those who have come to see it. Scenic designer John Story has replicated a section of an auditorium onstage, incorporating multiple rows of theater seats that begin empty, are filled for the first act, emptied for intermission, returned to (mostly) for the second act, and then vacated permanently when the show ends.
Director Jack Cummings III, who conceived the piece and developed it with Adam Bock, Mark Campbell, and David Pittu, has realized this concept about as fully as anyone could. Every detail of the production, from that eye-popping set to the on-target costumes (designed by Kathryn Rohe) to the incredibly intricate lighting plot (R. Lee Kennedy) to the enormous cast (46 actors in all), has been worked out and rehearsed to pinpoint precision; the show moves likes a well-oiled machine.
Yet a good concept, however brilliantly executed, is itself never enough to make a show work. And aside from its wonderful concept, cast (which includes performers as diverse as Sondra Lee and Donna Lynne Champlin), and physical production, The Audience too frequently lacks the real backbone of a great musical: great material.
This deficiency is a major symptom of Too Many Cooks Syndrome, which will almost certainly afflict any musical with contributions from 28 separate writers, as is the case here. The idea is absolutely understandable: If each group of audience member characters is given dialogue written by a different author, the resulting combination of different voices will vividly recreate the experience of disparate personalities colliding inside a theater. (The score, orchestrated by Alden Terry and here under Barbara Anselmi's musical direction, has been similarly assembled.)
But without a strong foundation to give the dozens of writers and performers something on which to build a show, it doesn't matter how witty, trenchant, or heartfelt the portraits are of the 19 types of people comprising the audience within The Audience. Even with plenty of overlapping dialogue and the constant buzzing of the actors (particularly in the pre-show scene), the randomness of a real theatre crowd might be captured, but the coherence necessary for good theatre won't be; the intended moving, insightful show won't be the result.
The closest thing here to a connecting thread is the author of the sung-through show-within-the-show, Jeremy Lane Shawn (Jack Donahue), who sits in the audience and becomes obsessed with everyone around him. (He's understandably on edge - the show's closing notice has already been posted.) But as his character does little more than complain about the other spectators (primarily in an attractive if disjointed number called "A Show Going On," by Jenny Giering and Mark Campbell), he can't function as an anchoring central figure the way, for example, Bobby in Stephen Sondheim's Company can. So, the rest of the show's elements come together much as do oil and water.
The cleverest of the segments are Matt Hoverman's, about an amusingly amorous couple (Dee Hoty and Duke LaFoon) in the theater's back row, and David Pittu's, about three groupies (Joanna Parson, Michele Ragusa, and Mark Aldrich) who are attending the show for the seventh time and sitting in the front row. Milling about the less-interesting middle are, among others, a trio of Japanese women, a group of secretaries from Staten Island, a number of dating couples, and parents and children of varying ages. But the sheer number of characters precludes any from receiving enough speaking or singing time to be meaningfully developed.
Steve Marzullo and Mark Campbell have written an attractive opening number ("Why Do I Go To The Theatre?") for the full cast, and Jeff Blumenkrantz's "I Think" provides the evening's sole moment of true heart as achingly sung by Rita Gardner as a Westchester widow. Most of the other songs are more generic: Eamon Foley sings a by-the-numbers I-want-to-be-an-actor anthem by Tom Kochan and Cheryl Stern; the three secretaries musically bicker to a tune by Nancy Shayne; and Gerry McIntyre scores a bizarre turn as an African-American yuppie singing the Lewis Flinn-Brian Crawley "Little White Lies" with the Japanese girls sing backup.
It's only during the final song that The Audience any real musical distinction. In Michael John LaChiusa's "Two Joins Three," Jeremy - driven to distraction by the preoccupied audience - realizes their importance in the theatre process. Yes, they fall asleep, they unwrap candy, they can't be controlled. But they're alive, and they give him an intangible, vital something he can't get anywhere else: "I live because of you," they sing, "You will mourn my death."
He knows that they're right, and as all four dozen cast members raise their voices in rapturous songs, so do we. Song, story, and singers momentarily create true theatrical magic, and everything comes blissfully and unforgettably together. It's a shame that it's the only time during the daring, ambitious The Audience that that's even remotely the case.