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The Musical of Musicals

Theatre Review by Jonathan Frank

For ages, scholars have been debating long into the wee hours of the morning, trying to solve that most profound of musical questions: what if composer A had tackled project B and written song C? Admittedly, this musical query has largely been pursued in the ivy towers of academia, usually in dorm rooms or rehearsal halls after copious amounts of alcohol had been imbibed. However, once in a great while the answer to one of these debates finds its way to the public sphere.

Unfortunately for theater lovers, most of these works have come from the more rarified strata of the musical oeuvre, such as via the works of P.D.Q. Bach or The Hampton String Quartet, the latter of whom answered that age old question, "What if Mozart wrote 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' or 'Sympathy for the Devil?'" Thus, the answers to truly important questions like, "What if Sondheim wrote 'White Christmas' or Cats" have been only been found at cast parties and the occasion cabaret show. Thankfully, The York Theatre Company has rectified this deficiency with the opening show of their thirty-fifth season, The Musical of Musicals - The Musical!, a comic satire on the genre that is a gift from the music theater gods.

The premise of the show is simple: what if five well-known songwriters or writing teams were to tackle the same basic plot, the minimalist silent movie/western/Electric Company sketch involving a young ingénue ("I can't pay the rent"), the evil landlord ("You must pay the rent"), and the hero ("I'll pay the rent"), throwing in the additional character of the wise older woman. Thus, we receive five mini-musicals that visit the same subject as viewed through the lenses of Rodgers and Hammerstein ("Corn"), Stephen Sondheim ("A Little Complex"), Jerry Herman ("Dear Abby"), Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Aspects of Junita"), and Kander and Ebb ("Speakeasy"). Written by Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart, who appear in the show as the landlord and sage older woman, respectively, Musical of Musicals is a surprisingly entertaining and well-realized show that rises above what could have been an extended one-joke concept and quite often displays moments of utter brilliance.

The show is at its best when it distills and deconstructs the musical, choreographic, and staging styles associated with the original influences and uses their essences as a springboard to create an original work of art. It is at its weakest, but still highly entertaining, when it cheats by relying on asides and direct commentaries on the subjects for easy laughs or bring across the stylistic joke.

The Kander and Ebb influenced "Speakeasy" is arguably the strongest of the five mini-musicals because it not only perfectly captures the style and content inherent in many a Kander and Ebb show, but creates a standalone theater piece with its own creative spark in the process. While it is difficult to describe it without ruining the jokes, the story is set in a cabaret/speakeasy in Chicago, run by a maniacal pianist/landlord (Eric Rockwell) who speaks in a German accent and has a tendency to repeat everything multiple times in various foreign languages. Chairs are dragged and manipulated ala Bob Fosse. The not-so-pure ingénue, Juny (Lovette George), channels Liza at her most maniacal. Her boyfriend, Villy (Craig Fols), fantasizes in prison ala Kiss of the Spiderwoman. And the wise older woman, Fraulein Abby (Joanne Bogart), delivers advice via the comic highlight of the evening (the title and subject of which is purposely being withheld for spoiler reasons).

Such attention to detail also appears in the Sondheim inspired "A Little Complex," which features a homicidal landlord who murders tenants in his apartment complex, The Woods, for not appreciating his art. In it, the writers have not only captured the style and wit associated with Sondheim, but the use of double-edged word meanings as well. In both instances, the affection the show's creators have for their subjects shines through.

The remaining three vignettes, while highly enjoyable in their own right, do not quite reach the creative high water mark of the aforementioned two as they oftentimes rely on spoken stage directions to get the satirical point across or lack a seemingly genuine affection for the object of their infliction. The first vignette of the evening, the Rodgers and Hammerstein-esque "Corn," is the weakest of the five as it feels the most cobbled together from recycled parts that don't quite form a solid story. However, its distillation of every nonsensical (and non-helpful) advice song into one "follow the rainbow up that mountain to a lonely island" number and its overblown take on the theme of repressed attraction inherent in most Rodgers and Hammerstein shows are priceless.

"Dear Abby" contains all the elements of a Jerry Herman musical, chiefly a leading lady who does little more than stand and look majestic while everyone dances and sings around her, but the pieces do not combine into a unique whole, resulting more in a Forbidden Broadway parody than a fully fleshed book-driven satire. Likewise, while "Aspects of Junita" ruthlessly nails Sir Webber on everything from his love of recycling Puccini to his over-use of "wretched recitative" and endless reprises, it does not always trust the audience to catch the nuances and uses too much exposition to explain what is obvious to the show's core (and arguably sole) audience: people who are not only familiar with every song and show put out by these five masters, but actually spend time with friends or on chat boards debating their merits and foibles.

And that is Musical of Musicals only potential drawback. The more familiar one is with the genre (and one has to have more than a touch of the rabid fan in one's makeup to fully appreciate and even understand all the references) the more one will enjoy the show. This is not a show for musical theater neophytes who can not tell you where that bright golden haze resides, or has "Dolly" leap to mind whenever anyone says "Hello" in their presence. Nor is the show for those with an allergy to puns as horribly delightful groaners such as "where's that boy with the bagel" and "don't throw OKs at me" abound.

If one's knowledge of the art form is encyclopedic and one's taste in puns and word play is delightfully low, there is much to love about the show. The cast is winning and each member has at least one moment of inspired lunacy. While the majority of piano playing duty falls on creator Eric Rockwell, each cast member takes a turn seamlessly relieving him, giving him a chance to occasionally come out from behind the piano. The sets are nonexistent as the show is performed in a black-box with minimal props and costume changes, so a great deal of the various vignettes' stylistic differentiation is due to the superb work of lighting designer, Mary Jo Dondlinger. Director/choreographer, Pamela Hunt deserves kudos for a masterful job of capturing the various tones and styles with a minimum of direct physical quoting.

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York Theatre Company
The Musical of Musicals
Through January 18
The Theatre at Saint Peter's — Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444