Regional Reviews: San Diego
[title of show]
Also see Bill's review of The Madness of George III
San Diego's Diversionary Theatre is celebrating the opening of its 25th season by presenting the West Coast premiere of [title of show]. Diversionary's audiences can celebrate, too, because [title of show] should be as enjoyable a time in the theatre as they've had for a whileas long as they don't think too hard about what they're seeing.
Director James Vasquez has figured out that [tos] (I hope that I may resort to the familiar here) is first and foremost about being a family. If residents of Avenue Q, another show about people in their 20s striving to succeed in New York, can wish to go back to college when things get tough, [tos]'s characters have managed to recreate the best parts about college life while doing what they must to make ends meet. They bond with friends; they have long, disjointed, and many times funny discussions of issues, big and trivial; and they create families-of-choice that are more important than their families of origin.
Mr. Vasquez has cast five talented individuals (well, one, Tim McKnight, is actually the musical director, but he has a character name and a few lines), and convinced them that the way to make this piece play is to get the audience to believe they have all fallen madly in love with each other. It works: Tom Zohar (as Jeff) does his best work since his leading turn in Diversionary's production of Yank!, Karson St. John (as Susan) demonstrates that awards for her role in Diversionary's The Little Dog Laughed were no fluke, Tony Houck bounces off walls (but not too much) as Hunter, and Heather Paton has the best "belt" of the group as Heidi. As an ensemble, these actors look as though they're having so much fun that it's infectious.
What they're playing, though, is something of a mess, though much of it a very funny mess. While the concept of writing a show about the process of writing a show is a clever one, it can also lead to too much material that is off-the-wall for the sake of being off-the-wall. Some of it is overly precious and "meta"; some of it (taking a risk here) is "so gay" (must Susan, for example, come across so strongly as a "fag hag?"). And, while great to-do is made of creating an original show, much of the early material that got the show into the New York Musical Theatre Festival seems to be based on the threads of Talkin' Broadway's All That Chat. There's much discussion of favorite failed musicals, concerns about which celebrities were spotted attending which shows, and even a bit about fantasy casting for the lead in Mame. ATC (writing for TB, I can certainly be familiar here) even makes it into the script, in the form of one of many posts about the quality (or, in this case, lack thereof) of [title of show].
What saves [title of show] for me are Jeff Bowen's songs. Some are better than others (and one, "Nine People's Favorite Thing," is very good, indeed), but they all contribute to the storyline and none feels like a means of marking time.
Things worked out fine for Hunter and Jeff (who are developing a TV series), as well as for Susan and Heidi (who are both working actresses in New York). With regional companies lining up to produce [title of show], its ultimate lack of success on Broadway probably doesn't matter. After all, who cares if something's any good as long as it's fun?
And, if there's one thing that characterizes the Diversionary production, it's fun.
[title of show performs July 8 August 8, 2010. Tickets ($33-$35) available by phone at 619.220.0097 or online at the Diversionary Theatre box office.
Diversionary Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of [title of show], music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen, book by Hunter Bell. Direction, musical staging, and costume coordination by James Vasquez, musical direction by Tim McKnight, with scenic design by Matt Scott, lighting design by Karin Filijan, properties design by David Medina, and dramaturgy by Catherine Miller.
With Tony Houck (Hunter), Tom Zohar (Jeff), Karson St. John (Susan), Heather Paton (Heidi), and Tim McKnight (Larry).
Follow Bill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SDBillEadie.