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Idaho!

She Can’t Believe She Said That!

Part of The New York Musical Theatre Festival

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Idaho!

As musical theatre comes ever closer to circling the drain of self-referential oblivion, new shows lampooning old shows, often for no discernible reason, have become brutally commonplace. Some inexplicably land on Broadway (Urinetown). Some are baffling Off-Broadway successes (the witless The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!). Most are confined to the Fringe Festival in the nether reaches of August. And some, like Idaho!, written by Buddy Sheffield (book, music, and lyrics) and Keith Thompson (music) are lost in the middle.

The story, such as it is, resets Oklahoma! out even further west, with the farmers and the cowmen turned into cowpokes and spudbusters who... nevermind. What supposedly matters is that there’s an optimistic, land-praising opening number, an optimistic, land-praising first-act finale, a dream ballet, and a useless second act, all theoretically fixtures of musicals of the Golden Age. But out of 21 songs, only one lands, and then only because its genuine emotionalism can’t be completely disguised: “Instead,” a pretty love song for the fine romantic leads, Rob Sutton and Elena Shaddow, is almost good to fit into a real show.

Almost nothing else is. In the scoring, staging (Matt Lenz), and tiresome choreography (Michelle Lynch), I detected homages to Li’l Abner, The Music Man, West Side Story, The Most Happy Fella, Call Me Madam, The King and I, and Carousel, with tiny additional doses of Grease and Les Misérables. Not a single one is funny. Not a single character, even with (or, really, especially with) names like Yank Daley and Slim Johnson, is funny, though the creators have one halfway-amusing idea in a black woman (Ramona Keller) masquerading as an Indian. Not a single meta-theatrical reference is funny, whether it’s girls singing the words “Transitional music” during a scene change or belting about being in their underwear for no reason.

[title of show], which started at NYMF and is soon to close on Broadway, got away with stunts like these because it built them into its structure. Idaho! doesn’t bother. None of the creative team ever convinces you that they think lambasting the form is present for anything other than its own reward.

Those who dislike what they consider musicals’ inveterate hokiness, or those who merely want to feel superior by catching jokes launched at molasses-in-winter speeds, will undoubtedly laugh themselves silly. But in trying to expose famous shows’ idiosyncrasies, all Idaho! does is prove exactly why those titles endure yet today. I left the theater humming Oklahoma!’s timeless title song. Is that really what even a parody show’s writers want to encourage?

Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival




She Can’t Believe She Said That!

If there’s really anything musical-worthy about the life of Kathie Lee Gifford, She Can’t Believe She Said That!, the musical biography of her, never makes the case. Author Matt Prager paints her in shamefully familiar hues: as wife and mother, shameless PR whore, and an empty-headed low-talent incapable of realizing how all the problems afflicting her are ones she created herself.

But because Gifford is hardly a skyscraping personality, Prager can’t elicit from her story the same fireworks - musical or dramatic - other writers could from the likes of Eva Peron, Fanny Brice, or even Edie Beale. Kathie Lee (Heather Laws) is all about laughing and loving, flashing her gigawatt smile, and praising and condemning God, which makes for a rambling journey from beauty-pageant obscurity to Name That Tune showgirl to superstar morning TV hostess.

Prager’s score, which is plagued by a plodding, relentlessly thumping rhythm that sounds like it was lifted from a 1980s videogame, likewise tries to draw blood from gentle taps on the skin, but neither mollycoddles nor mocks with any precision. The closest thing to a memorable song is Kathie Lee’s “breakout” number “Christianer Than You,” but that’s only because its pseudo-gospel stylings demand melodic variation. Prager’s other songs are too-accurate interpretations of the real Gifford’s monologues and speeches: mildly pleasant, tonally circuitous, and instantly forgettable.

Most everything in the show falls into that same category, with even the direction (Josh Hecht) and choreography (Tara Jeanne Vallee) making no musical-comedy missteps but saying nothing remotely original. Laws is a sunny, energetic center to all this, but she’s burdened with so much marshmallow-toothed satire and inconclusive music that she rarely has a chance to register as an original personality. As the two main men in Kathie Lee’s life, Charles Karel (as Regis Philbin) and Rob Sheridan (as Frank Gifford) deliver more incisive, indelible portraits.

This is not especially surprising. Prager isn’t trying to portray the real Kathie Lee Gifford, but explore the woman behind the persona who cultivates adoration with one hand and crushes it with the other. There’s real value in that idea, but Prager needs to prove why Gifford is the ideal embodiment of it. Until he does, She Can’t Believe She Said That! is going to continue saying practically nothing at all.

Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival