Regional Reviews: St. Louis
[title of show]
There is a curious irony about the production of [title of show] that opened this weekend in the Studio space at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis: part, at least, of the charm of the original version came from the mind-bending situation of four actors playing themselvesplaying themselves. As appealing and energetic as the Rep's version of the show is, and as solid as the performersincluding Benjamin Howes, who understudied both male roles in the Off-Broadway productionmay be, I suspect that we miss something of that fundamental weirdness.
Not that there aren't enough surreal moments to go around; after all, this is, as director Victoria Bussert writes, "A musical about two guys trying to write a musical about two guys trying to write a musical." The audience must adapt to a bendable concept of time in which the events on stage may simultaneously reflect a couple of different pasts and on top of that be punctured by fourth-wall-breaking eruptions of the present moment.
That it all somehow works, that a cohesive and entertaining story somehow emerges from the all the self-referential post-modernist fooling around, is both amazing and delightful. And that leads to the ultimate level of irony: it becomes clear that under all the whimsy, playwright Hunter Bell and composer/lyricist Jeff Bowen are (and were) very, very much in command of what they are doing, and that [title of show], which may have begun as a collaborative game, is a finely crafted product with a lot more polish than the four free-spirited characters who bring it to life might want to admit to.
It is probably necessary to point out here that Hunter Bell has a considerable history with St. Louis theater in general and the Rep in particular. One of his first professional roles was as the busboy in a production here of She Loves Mein which he was cast and directed by Victoria Bussert. Ms. Bussert recounts, in her program notes, that she also directed Jeff Bowen and the original Heidi in the touring production of Tommy which is mentioned in the script.
It is not an accident, then, that she directs and choreographs this production with ingenuity and empathy, generating a lot of movement in a small space and handling the moments of post-modernist fooling around with deft control.
Mr. Howes, as might be expected, wears the role of Jeff like a pair of comfortable jeans. Multi-talented local favorite Ben Nordstrom captures the youthful energy and high spirits of "Hunter" beautifully. Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who is now my official idol because she has spent 17 years as a muppet on "Sesame Street," is delightful as Susan, the self-conscious one who isn't sure she's good enough. Amy Justman, also appearing at the Rep for the first time, plays Heidi with grace and passion. David Horstman fits the role of Larrythe onstage keyboard player and musical director of the show within the show within the show, etc.so well that it is a bit of a surprise to find out that he hasn't been doing it since the beginning.
The original production may have been "four chairs and a piano," as the notes maintain, but this one adds a nifty set, carefully designed by Scott C. Neale to look like a small New York apartment, subtle but perfect costumes by Betty Krausnick, and very effective lightingwhich helps at times to make sense of the transitionless transitionsby John Wylie.
In short, [title of show] is not your grandmother's musical, but it's craftier than you might expect, and altogether a thoroughly enjoyable ninety minutes of theater. It will run through January 31 in the studio space at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis. For ticket information, call 314 968 4925 or visit www.repstl.org.