Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Musical of Musicals - The Musical!
Do you like musicals that are smart and funny? Then you'll probably like The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! It's a show with a funny point of view and a great sense of humor. Just one problem: The show has basically one joke, a joke that's introduced in its first minute, then gets repeated over and over for nearly two hours. It's a smart show ... it's just not especially deep.
The concept is summed up by the words projected on the screen at the opening of the show: "Five Musicals ... One Plot!" In the opening segment, the writing team of Eric Rockwell (music) and Joanne Bogart (lyrics) takes one of the hoariest of melodramatic plots (the heroine can't pay the rent to the mean ol' landlord) and adds songs which are loving, expert parodies of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Then, every twenty minutes or so, the same plot gets repeated, but in the styles of other popular musical theater composers (Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Kander and Ebb).
It's a great idea, and Rockwell and Bogart have written some very funny material here. They lay all their cards on the table in the Rodgers and Hammerstein segment, which opens with a strapping cowhand singing "Oh, what beautiful corn!" and declaring "I'm in love with a wonderful hoe." When the heroine, June, asks one of her suitors why he wants to marry her, he says "Because you're June, June, June, - just because you're June!" She turns for advice to Mother Abby, who sings a song about the need to ford every stream until your dreams come true ("Follow your dream/Don't ask me why/Follow your dream/Until you die"). And then there is a character who says "et cetera, et cetera, et cetera," and a song called "That Was Delicious Clam Dip."
If you don't get those jokes, this isn't the show for you. I got them, and I enjoyed the wit of Bogart's lyrics and the way Rockwell aped the style of Rodgers' music without directly quoting it. But the constant show of cleverness does get wearying after a while. Some of the jokes are too inside even for the opening night audience; for example, the closing line of the Rodgers and Hammerstein segment, which sends up the most notorious line of dialogue in Carousel, got no laughs.
From there, it's on to Sondheim, with further skillful parodies - this time of songs like "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," and "No One is Alone" ("Roses are red/Violets are blue/Some lyrics rhyme/Some don't"). And there are more corny puns, mostly references to Sondheim titles - for instance, when the heroine mentions "decorum," the evil landlord replies "A funny thing happened on the way to decorum." Next is a Jerry Herman parody called "Dear Abby," in which the overly chipper protagonist enters down a staircase and declares, "I can't sing or dance, but I'm the star of the show!" She and her co-stars do spirited send-ups of "Hello, Dolly!," "It's Today," and "If He Walked Into My Life," plus a gem called "I Wanna Sing a Show Tune" which might be the only song in The Musical of Musicals that might work in a different context.
Act two opens with an Andrew Lloyd Webber takeoff called "Aspects of Junita" that feels a little more vicious than what has come before. Here the cast gets a chance to do impressions, and they excel as they take on stars such as Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Michael Crawford and Mandy Patinkin. Finally comes a Kander and Ebb parody set in "a cabaret in Chicago," where the host tells his patrons "Drink up, 'cause life's a cabernet." The actors slink around in the style of Bob Fosse and sing takeoffs on "Cell Block Tango," "Liza With a Z" and "My Coloring Book."
Those songs, like the others in the show, show an advanced knowledge of the composers being spoofed; you've got to know a lot about the intricacies of the songwriters' styles to make the knockoffs sound so convincing. Yet it all stays at one level, just poking fun and never saying anything insightful about musical theater (unless you count a few digs at Andrew Lloyd Webber for stealing from Puccini). Even the closing number, called "Done" (a takeoff on "One" from A Chorus Line) doesn't do anything but tell you that the show is over. Contrast that with the approach of the long-running Forbidden Broadway, which parodies musicals too but always assures the audience that musical theater is a great thing deserving of our love. Here, musical theater is just a premise on which to build some punch lines.
Pamela Hunt's staging is efficient, duplicating her original New York staging almost completely. That's part of the problem. When I saw this show early last year at the York Theatre in Manhattan, there was a charm to its lack of production values - just four people dressed in black, taking turns dancing and playing a piano. It seemed quite appropriate for a show staged at the York, in what is essentially a church basement. But at the Prince Music Theater, I expected more. When a song is set in a cornfield, one would expect to at least see a projection behind the actors with a picture of a cornfield - but instead we just get red lights projected on a huge screen. That huge screen is blank for most of the show. The Prince is capable of much more, as anyone who saw the inventive use of projections and multiple screens in their 2001 production of Candide knows. What seemed quaint off-Broadway seems threadbare at the Prince.
The two men in the cast, Brent Schindele and Jeffrey Rockwell, bring a nice sense of knowing self-parody to their roles, and they sing and play piano superbly. Emily Zacharias comes close to their level when she takes center stage in the Jerry Herman segment. Rebecca Kupka, playing the ingenue roles, works hard but is merely game when she should be endearing.
While watching The Musical of Musicals, I thought of the movie musical parodies I grew up watching on The Carol Burnett Show. It's a shame that TV shows like that aren't around any more, because Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart's talents would fit in perfectly there. In fact, I would have liked the five skits in The Musical of Musicals more had they appeared in five consecutive weekly episodes on the Burnett show, rather than as two straight hours of relentless jokes.
The Musical of Musicals is very good, but sometimes it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
The Musical of Musicals - The Musical! runs through Sunday, October 30. Ticket prices range from $35 to $50 and may be purchased by calling UPSTAGES at 215-569-9700, in person at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, or online at www.princemusictheater.org.
Music by Eric Rockwell