Every dweeb can have his day, at least in the wild, wacky world of Nerds:// A Musical Software Satire. Only in this delightfully zany entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival can the King of Geeks become the King of Cool overnight, can computer programmers moonlight as sex symbols, and can Bill Gates spit out a rap that would make Eminem fume with envy.
You're unlikely to see a more shocking first-act finale at NYMF - or anywhere else this year - than Microsoft doyens Gates and Paul Allen busting a move on the hip-hop circuit to promote the release of Windows and assert their dominance over Apple. Yes, it's a visual gag and the cheapest laugh imaginable. But how better to demonstrate counterculture's complete assimilation into the mainstream than to have the ultimate outsider morph into a pop icon? Isn't that - on some level - exactly what really happened?
Such subversive humor, rife throughout the show, comes naturally to writers Jordan Allen-Dutton and Erik Weiner (book and lyrics) and Hal Goldberg (music), who make this the funniest and most lovable collection of awkward anti-socialites this side of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The writers even do the unthinkable and make this story about business, technology, deception, and (after a fashion) love accessible: Reducing Gates (Sean Dugan) and Allen (Jeremy Ellison-Gladstone) to sex-starved geniuses who could be vacationing from a John Hughes movie gives it an immediate, popular relevance to potential audiences.
If a few jokes, particularly involving a muse named Oracle who descends to cast some heavenly light on the second act, are aimed at their more hardcore tech fan base and devoted Slashdotters, such moments are generally few and far between. For the most part, following the story is little challenge: Gates and Allen's domination of the computer industry is presented parallel with the story of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Anthony Holds and Thadd Krueger), the more forward-thinking competition who appropriate Apple's graphical interface from Xerox but rest on their laurels and miss out on their own chance for technological domination. Two women, Myrtle and Sally (Trisha Rapier and Jessica-Snow Wilson) provide a measuring stick for Gates and Jobs to track what they gain and lose along the way.
Yes, this is all conventional musical territory, but its utmost seriousness on one level and its wickedly satirical bent on another prevent even a hint of dryness from creeping into the proceedings. Lines like "Where are the DOS groupies?" are irresistible enough, but when IBM is depicted as a cross between a covert government agency and a secret society, when Gates and Allen's idea of a showstopper is repeating the words "nerd" and "action" ad infinitum, and when Gates attempts to buy the United States justice system with self-printed monopoly money, it's hard not to love the show and the relentless creativity behind it.
Andy Goldberg's incisive direction, Dan Knechtges's fervent choreography, and Kevin R. Frech's crackerjack projections and video make this a high-voltage outing, and Nadia DiGiallonardo's musical direction and band are top-notch. But only two performers truly stand out: Holds brings a lot of swarthy sex appeal to Jobs, granting him enough charisma to believably trounce his weak-willed competition; Wilson is impossibly sweet in her clueless role, and taps into an innocence so pure that one suspects it isn't fully present in the script. The other performers, who include William Selby as the eyepatch-wearing CEO of IBM, are thoroughly professional but functional, businessmen and women who've mastered the presentation but not the hard sell.
One could also complain about the lyrics, which occasionally border on the anachronistic and are in a few places too dense to be as clever as intended. But this is a musical that, like the people it documents, most thrives when not playing by established rules. As the writers remind us in the final number, "We Are All Just Nerds," we're all on the fringes of society in some way, but everyone has the potential to contribute something valuable, important, or even world-changing. That message, and the infinite loop of fun that the rest of Nerds is so dizzily caught in, makes even the more bitter moments a joy to swallow.
New York Musical Theatre Festival