Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of White Christmas
The Musical of Musicals takes the unique concept of telling one very simple story five times, with each episode written and performed in the style of a famous Broadway composer or composer/lyricist team. The story follows a young ingenue who can't pay her rent, an evil landlord, a leading man who might or might not save the day by paying the rent, and an older female who dispenses advice of questionable value. The plot takes on many variations when the characters and details associated with the parodied shows are included. And there's lot to choose from with Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Kander & Ebb as your targets.
The parodies are the work of Eric Rockwell (music, book) and Joanne Bogart (lyrics, book). The lyrics and book are peppered with many puns, one-liners, twisted almost-quotes, and other jokes that are specifically based on the musicals and showtunes of each writer. It's nearly impossible to catch them all. The wordplay is extremely smart and witty, with moments of sheer comic genius. Rockwell skillfully manages to capture the distinctive sounds of the five composers, and plays around with familiar melodies without ever being exact copies.
The opening Rodgers & Hammerstein scene, entitled Corn!, provides a solid foundation of what is to come, while concentrating on Oklahoma! and Carousel, with some South Pacific and Sound of Music thrown in as well. A Little Complex, the Sondheim spoof, with its densely packed insider jokes, is the show's best section, with the Kander & Ebb portion (Speakeasy), which carefully mixes in references to Chicago, Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman, a close second. The Jerry Herman parody (Dear Abby) is probably the weakest, coming across as frilly, sentimental and padded but, hey, that's just like most of the composer's work! Aspects of Juanita, the Webber vignette, is certainly the meanest, taking the composer to task for copying melodies from the world of opera and lampooning (with no holds barred) the bombastic, "over-the-top" emotional songs with which he is associated.
Like Altar Boyz, currently playing in Playhouse's larger performance space, this production boasts the talents of the show's original New York director. Pamela Hunt provides lots of comical visuals in her blocking, which is carefully played to the three-sided audience arrangement. The dancing, pacing and timing of the production is first rate in Ms. Hunt's care, and a tone of admiration for the sources of the parodies can be felt as well.
Playhouse has assembled a great cast for The Musical of Musicals. Lyricist Joanne Bogart performs the role of Abby, the older woman giving out advice (think Aunt Eller, Auntie Mame, Dolly Levi, etc.), just as she did in the original Off-Broadway production. Her spirited delivery of anthems conveying the mostly unusable wisdom is perfectly appropriate and entertaining. Kristin Maloney displays lots of versatility in her acting as June, the young lady in need of rescue. She's also probably both the best vocalist and dancer of the cast. Brent Schindele brings handsome good looks, a strong singing voice and great non-verbals to his role as the hero, Big Willy. Rich Silverstein not only scores lots of laughs as the mean landlord Jitter (think Jud Fry, Phantom, Sweeney Todd, and the Emcee), but also provides skilled piano accompaniment throughout.
The minimal set design by James Morgan wisely keeps the focus on the material and is a good fit for the small performance space. Costumes by John Carver Sullivan are attractive and fit appropriately with each scene without having to be period or location specific. Mary Jo Dondlinger's effective lighting helps to offset the lack of set pieces in creating space and atmosphere.
For fans of musicals, The Musical of Musicals is a valentine of solid writing wrapped up in hilarity and fun. If you are in Cincinnati and haven't seen the show yet, be sure to buy a ticket now, for this mounting features a superb cast. If, however, you're not really familiar with musicals, you're likely to miss most of the jokes and references, and this show really isn't for you.
The Musical of Musicals The Musical continues at Cincinnati Playhouse In The Park through December 23, 2007. For tickets and more information, call (513) 421-3888.
-- Scott Cain