Perhaps the single greatest understatement of this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival is spoken by Bud Davenport late in the first act of Gutenberg! The Musical!: "History doesn't always happen like we think." Indeed it doesn't. And in the case of Gutenberg!, playing at the Sage Theatre, that's a great thing in more ways than one.
In devising the ostensibly bound-for-Broadway musical, writers Bud (music and lyrics) and Doug Simon (book and lyrics) admit that biographical information about the inventor of the printing press was scant, which led them to insert a few details of their own. This, however, is perfectly in keeping with the genre of historical fiction: "It's fiction... that's true!"
But while it's fairly likely that Johannes Gutenberg did not employ a doting grape-stomper named Helvetica and that his mortal enemy was a monk (with mutilated genitals) determined to keep the Word of God his own private domain, all of this stops mattering mere minutes after the start of Gutenberg!, which was actually written by Anthony King and Scott Brown: It's not love of Gutenberg that drives the hilarious Gutenberg!, it's love of musical theatre itself.
The show, you see, is a backer's audition that Bud and Doug (played by Christopher Fitzgerald and Jeremy Shamos) are presenting with hopes of interesting Broadway producers. So what if these two incurable nerds can't act, sing, or dance? They have desire to spare, and - after a fashion - no end of cleverness.
How to change Gutenberg's grape press to a printing press in a blink of an eye? A construction-paper flipping sign, of course. How to convey crowd scenes with a dozen people or more? Baseball caps, each inscribed with the appropriate character's name and stacked on the head or held in the hand as necessary, are the logical solution. (Those caps, by the way, which can stand in for everything from feces and dead babies to a stage-filling kickline, are the show's most delicious running gag.)
Musically, Gutenberg!'s score pays rickety tribute to Bud and Doug's favorite musicals, apparently British pop operas: A street-gossip song is done as a rap, complete with nerdy-cum-hip dance moves; the first-act finale finds Gutenberg, the Monk, and Helvetica singing overlapping rock solos on three separate rooftops. Say what you will about Bud and Doug, but their creativity is truly (and sometimes regrettably) limitless.
So is that of King and Brown, Fitzgerald and Shamos, and director Dave Mowers, who keeps all the insanity in check (if just barely). The show they've all created is breathlessly zany, but also oddly touching: So totally do Fitzgerald and Shamos dissolve into Bud and Doug that there's no trace of the artistry these two superb young actors always demonstrate in their work. All you see is the joy of these two working stiffs who really want to beat the odds.
They might go over the top in presenting Gutenberg as a laid-back surfer dude or the Monk as a redneck truck driver with mutilated genitals, in taking asides to the audience to explain their own personal philosophies ("God and stuff don't mix"), or in their insistence to decry anti-Semitism at every turn, and if you occasionally sense their awareness of their inability to win this particular battle, they're obviously having a great time, and they want you to have a great time, too. That might not count for much in the real world show business, but it's everything here. As they admit near evening's end, "It's not just the success that matters - it's the dream."
While their dream is a laugh-out-loud one, it could use a bit of clarifying: Though Gutenberg! runs just about an hour and a half (including an intermission), it's perhaps seven minutes too long, and the second act doesn't build quite enough on all the raucous unpredictability of the first. Even if Bud and Doug, like King and Brown, still have a way to go, they're already ahead of themselves: Bud considers Elton John's shows the ne plus ultra of musical theatre, but with his own work of hysterical fiction, he and Doug are already giving Sir Elton a real run for his money.
Gutenberg! The Musical!