Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

[title of show]
Northlight Theatre

Also see John's review of Rent

Doug Peck, Christine Sherrill, Matthew Crowle, Stephen Schellhardt and
McKinley Carter

In this presidential election year, we hear a lot about politicians "playing to the base." [title of show] isn't particularly political, but it sure plays to the base audience for musicals. A musical about the writing of a musical—actually a musical about the writing of this musical—it's filled with inside jokes that would resonate only with those who work in that business or who follow it very closely. In other words, us, the readers of this website (in fact, Talkin' Broadway is mentioned twice in the show). For those unfamiliar with the piece, it concerns the process by which composer-lyricist Jeff Bowen and bookwriter Hunter Bell created a musical in just three weeks in order to enter the first year of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Lacking a subject, or rights to any existing property for adaptation, they quickly decided to write about their writing—and the result is a Pirandellian musical in which the characters are aware their words and actions will be captured for the script and aware that their beings are also being manipulated by the playwrights.

The piece could also be described as an expansion of "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along, in which we watch a duo of early-career writers struggle to get a foothold in the business. It's that, but Bowen and Bell seem mostly just out to give the audience a good time, rather than get all heavy into the starving artist stuff. Their targets include theater festivals, the difficulty of balancing day jobs with artistic endeavors, performer egos and the demands of commercial theater. The writers played themselves in the show's festival, Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, as did their actress friends Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell. For this Northlight Theatre production, the roles are taken by the gifted cast of Matthew Crowle (Hunter), Stephen Schellhardt (Jeff), McKinley Carter (Susan) and Christine Sherrill (Heidi). They're all fine singers with perfect comic timing, and they move lithely yet with seeming spontaneity under Peter Amster's direction (and since there's no credited choreographer, we can assume he's responsible to their tightly choreographed movement).

Crowle's Hunter is a charming procrastinator, though the one who becomes more businesslike once the musical gets some interest from commercial producers. Schellhardt's Jeff, the songwriter, is more the idealist—the dreamer who lives in memories of past musicals and becomes more resistant to the changes in the show that are requested by the producers. Sherrill gives Heidi a believably innocent quality that plays well against McKinley Carter's earthier, mildly competitive Susan. The four blend perfectly and land the jokes with ease under Amster's sure direction, as music director/accompanist Doug Peck displays a comedian's skill with his few lines as the pianist "Charlie."

[title of show] spends a lot of time just having fun, until the promise of commercial success and recognition on Broadway starts to put stresses on the friendships. It takes a while getting there, with the first two-thirds of the musical playing as mostly a clever revue. I think I would like the piece better if it had more of an arc. At nearly two hours, it begins to overstay its welcome a little, but Bowen's songs are catchy and pleasant and the whole thing has a good natured feeling to it. There are probably few of us—the sorts of die-hard fans that will most enjoy this piece—who haven't wondered what it might be like to live the life of a Broadway writer (and those who haven't wondered are probably those who are doing it). [title of show] gives us the chance to look inside that world for two hours and decide if we're still envious of them or not.

[title of show] will be performed at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL through June 10, 2012. Ticket information is available online at, by phone at 847-673-6300 or at the box office.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson

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