Regional Reviews: New Jersey
[title of show] Happily Arrives on George Street
Also see Bob's review of Last of the Red Hot Lovers
For those of us who are very fond of the highly original, intensely personal, hilarious and moving [title of show], there is very good news over here in New Jersey. After all, there was some real cause for worry. Prior to the current George Street Playhouse production, all three New York productionsNYMF (2004), Vineyard (off-Broadway - 2006) and Lyceum (Broadway - 2008)the performers were the show's authors Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) and their helpful friends and theatre comrades Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff playing themselves. Happily, the top flight Broadway cast that George Street has assembled is so apt and so talented that [title of show] feels as fresh and new as when it delighted aficionados when it burst upon the scene at NYMF.
For those new to [title of show] it is about the making of the show itself. Jeff and Hunter learn that the fledgling New York Music Theatre Festival (NYMF) is seeking new musicals for consideration for presentation in the festival. Although the deadline for submission is less than three weeks off, Jeff and Hunter decide to collaborate on creating a musical for submission. They ask friends Susan and Heidi to help them through the process. When the time comes to complete the application to be submitted with their finished script, they decide to fill in the blank line following the prompt "[title of show]" with those very same words. It seems to me that this is the only misstep that was made during the initial creative process, but given the success that [title of show] has achieved, it is one which need not worry anyone.
The inclusion of [title of show] at NYMF was as far as the musical could go back in 2004. While the story it told was a total delight, its episodic structure made it easy to consider it pure froth. Such a view fails to take into consideration that [title of show] perfectly conveyed the joy of a time in the lives of four delightfully witty young theatre artists when their creative juices were flowing, and faith in their most extravagant dreams trumped the realities of their struggles to remain in the theatre.
However, by the time that [title of show] got to Broadway, the four years which had elapsed since its NYMF premiere had become a significant portion of a revised and expanded "final" version. The initial heady reception of the show gave rise to a daunting new set of expectations and challenges. Years of dedication and sacrifice, and mature decision making were required to secure the future of [title of show] and its progenitors individual careers. The pleasure of journeying in the world of New York musical theatre with them is ever present, but, as their burdens become apparent, [title of show] adds weightier colors to its palette.
It is true that musical theatre buffs will enjoy [title of show] the most as it references individuals and shows not widely known. One song largely made up of titles from flop musicals cleverly strung together (as Jeff seeks inspiration from their Playbills) is enhanced by projections of actual Playbill covers which were supplied to George Street by Peter Filichia. The latter draws a mention as does Talkin' Broadway's All That Chat.
Tyler Maynard is totally delightful as the totally out there Hunter Bell. In keeping with the authors' determination to have [title of show] reflect their honest vision without compromising, Maynard welcomes us to delight in him on his own terms. There is nothing funnier or edgier than Maynard/Hunter when he becomes Jeff's blank yellow pad to musically inspire Jeff's writing.
It is no wonder that Seth Rudetsky, a renaissance man in New York musical theatre (conductor, musician, actor, artistic producer) is delightful as composer/lyricist Jeff Bowen, whose refusal to compromise inspires his collaborators. I found myself thinking that Rudetsky himself was the actual composer/lyricist of the show. The identification of Rudetsky with his role is that complete.
Lauren Kennedy as Heidi Blickenstaff has to weigh her obligations to her [title of show] buddies and the work's potential to give her a featured role against the wages that she is can earn by being cast as a chorus swing. Susan Mosher's sharp tongued Susan Blackwell seems to be perpetually on the edge of giving up her dreams for dreaded office work. Both sing beautifully as they become ever closer as they struggle with tough choices.
The music is provided by musical director Jesse Vargas (as Larry) whose excellent piano accompaniment is all that [title of show] needs. Vargas' work blends in so seamlessly that we hardly notice his presence until he is prompted to speak by the others as he joins the collaboration as [title of show] approaches its debut.
Director Matt Lenz has staged at a lively pace, capturing the freshness, passion and humor which are the hallmarks of this musical. The projections employed offer enhancement, although the inspirational and moving "Die, Vampire, Die is diminished under the weight of the digital projections of swarms of flying bats. It reminds us of how wise Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell were to stick to their guns in defending their belief that four chairs and a piano should remain the centerpieces of even a Broadway [title of show].
The casual throwaway style of the writing cleverly masks the careful craft of the book, music and lyrics. The more that one is exposed to Jeff Bowen's lively and melodious score, the more one realizes how skillful it is.
Freshly cast productions of [title of show] have already begun to appear. It appears it will become ubiquitous in theatres throughout America. Theatregoers with access to George Street Playhouse would do well to catch it and its superlative new cast now.
[title of show] continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday - Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm (except 12/12)/ Matinees Wednesday (12/9), Saturday and Sunday 2 pm) through Dec. 12, 2010, at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online: www.GSPonline.org.
[title of show] Music and Lyrics by Jeff Bowen/ Book by Hunter Bell; directed by Matt Lenz