Mayday! Mayday! Do you copy? Satiric musical going down. I repeat satiric musical going down. All systems fail! Abort mission! Eject! Eject!
Oh, if only the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre where Top Gun! The Musical is playing had ejector seats. To put it simply, this NYMF import from Canada is bad, but in what may seem a paradoxical assertion, not quite bad or outrageous enough to actually make it good. The show is yet another addition to the recent phenomenon of tongue-in-cheek parodic musicals, but unlike some shows of that genre, Top Gun! lacks sufficient wit and intelligence to register as a work of barbed satire; instead it's a dull bore, offering scattered laughs in what is decidedly unfunny writing.
This new musical, lest one gets the wrong impression, is not simply a retelling of the 1986 Tom Cruise action flick, but a backstage show about a company rehearsing a Broadway-bound production of Top Gun! The Musical. Creators Denis McGrath (book and lyrics) and Scott White (music) try to make insightful observations about the currently comatose vital signs of the Broadway musical. They criticize current shows for relying too much on movies for musical source materials (the show mentions a fake musical adaptation of Die Hard and a show called Apocalypse Wow) and vilify the trend of casting untalented movie stars in leading roles. Such phenomena are definitely ripe for comic treatment, but McGrath and White's banal material, which often tries to make the characters sympathetic rather than barbarously skewering them, just isn't sharp enough to hit the mark it aims for. Instead, there are throwaway "generic-sounding" songs about "public domain materials" and "not giving up one's day job" mixed with "bad" songs from Top Gun! The Musical, the show within the show. McGrath's rhymes and lyrics are simplistic and impart little relevant information (and include one song with the line "It doesn't even matter if they hate this song," which I did hate), resulting in a work that is quickly forgettable.
Given such lackluster material, it's not surprising that the talented cast is forced to wildly mug their way through the show as directed by Colin Viebrock. As this is a backstage musical, the show has every obvious theater "type" present: the nelly queen (Steve Gallagher), the frustrated love-sick stage manager (Alison Lawrence), a high-strung director (Brett McCaig), the "diva" (Sharon Heldt), and the permanently confused actor (Dmitry Chepovetsky). The backstage "antics" that McGrath cooks up are right out of Noises Off, but nowhere near as funny as Frayn's brilliant masterpiece. As it is, McGrath and White's characters often lack the motivation for singing the songs they do. Why, for example, is the diva Charlie saddled with the irrelevant number "Something to Play," in which she laments the lack of appropriate theatrical roles for middle-aged women? The show-within-in-a-show conceit left me totally confused as to what Top Gun! is trying to send up. Bad musicals or backstage Broadway politics? At least the cast as a whole is strong, with standout work from Gallagher and Chepovetsky, the latter expertly executing choreographer Nicola Pantin's hilarious dance moves with the manic drive of a Solid Gold dancer. Indeed Pantin's choreography is the only thing in the show that is sufficiently excessive and appropriately "bad" enough to actually qualify as an entertaining and diversionary satiric send-up.
Given the show's lack of true bite, Top Gun! feels more like the type of original musical that one might see at one's local community center or something the folks from Waiting for Guffman might have stitched together. Sure, there are hokey excerpts from the show within the show that are mildly amusing including the death scene of Top Gun character Goose ("That Goose is Cooked") and a sequence involving the film's famous homoerotic beach volleyball scene, but clunky dialogue and petty backstage bickering that no one cares about predominate. Like lemmings, McGrath and White have fallen into the abyss that is the satiric musical, in which it is almost impossible to create anything other than one-dimensional characters. At least the payoff with good satire is that the humor ultimately trumps all, an element lacking in this show.
At one point, the characters express their fear that they might be in a bad show and indeed, they couldn't be more correct. Ultimately, the lead producer of the fictional Top Gun!: The Musical has to pull the plug on the production and frankly, he has the right idea. If only the producers had done the same to McGrath and White's show, they could have saved the audience from a "no survivors" crash and burn.
New York Musical Theatre Festival