Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 17, 2008
[title of show] Music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen. Book by Hunter Bell. Directed and choreographed by Michael Berresse. Scenic design by Neil Patel. Costume design by Chase Tyler. Lighting design by Ken Billington, Jason Kantrowitz. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Musical direction & arrangements by Larry Pressgrove. Starring Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jeff Bowen, and Courtney Balan, Benjamin Howes.
That's both the uproarious alpha and the unfortunate omega of the brain-bending [title of show], which has improbably and indelibly arrived at the Lyceum following a flurry of workshop productions, innovative PR gambits, and torrents of orgiastic support from its (relative) legions of dedicated fans. They're all so thrilled with the genuine moments of genius, as well as the life-affirming story it tells about its creators, Jeff Bowen (songs) and Hunter Bell (book), that they don't mind overlooking its other identity as a slag heap of intellectual, emotional, and theatrical dishonesty.
I, however, do mind. But because it's impossible to assess one [title of show] without considering the other, let's begin with theirs.
It premiered at the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival in September of 2004, where it attracted notice and devotees for the bizarre but beguiling way it documented its own genesis. The lead characters, Jeff (Bowen) and Hunter (Bell), had only three weeks to write the show from nothing, so they loaded their pages with multi-meta filler often camouflaged as snippets of snappy dialogue detailing how they and their friends (Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff) scraped and scribbled the show into shape in a flurry of unbridled, unrepentant creativity.
The breezy structure and the actors' riveting chemistry helped the show blast into developmental mountings at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and Ars Nova, and land (revised and updated) Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 2006. That well-reviewed run didn't immediately lead anywhere new. But the quartet kept kindling interest with their peculiar brand of cheeky humor in a series of YouTube videos called The [title of show] Show, until audiences and producers couldn't help but take notice. Which brings us to the present.
[title of show] now incorporates the Vineyard run and the ramp-up to Broadway, but still thrives primarily on the comedy and charm it's always displayed. Bowen and Bell's adoration of potentially obscure theatre personalities ("Did you hear that Mary Stout got hit by a hot dog cart?") and marginally more familiar callouts for the masses ("Don't say that of course you were meant to have children"). The disintegration of boundaries between the narrative's myriad overlapping layers. (Heidi, following a musical turn as Bowen's flop-musical muse: "I'm sorry, are we in this scene now?") And, of course, songs that riff on starry-eyed dreaming, Schoolhouse Rock (Jeff is tormented by an anthropomorphic sheaf of blank paper), and our destructive inclination to dwell on the reasons we allow ourselves to fail.
The wry contributions of director-choreographer Michael Berresse and musical director Larry Pressgrove have imbued the show with blithe bounce for four years. But key to its enduring appeal are the performers, whose sharp-tongued repartee and close-harmony personalities mesh with a refreshing dynamism. The casual dreamer Bowen, Bell the joyrider, polished professional Blickenstaff, and the Sahara-dry comedienne Blackwell are irresistible and, understudy listings in the Playbill notwithstanding, irreplaceable. When they open their mouths, you want to believe every single word they say.
That is where the problems escalate.
Even in its earliest form, [title of show] wasn't "good" in the traditional sense. Intriguing, yes, but raw and sloppy, as packed with half-formed ideas as it was with captivating scenes and songs exploring the impromptu nature of creativity on the quick. It drew its bite from its insinuating specificity, actual dates, names, and places that always reminded you that you were witnessing something of immediate importance. Those who followed the theatre as religiously as Bowen and Bell were rewarded with one of the most invigoratingly "inside" musicals ever.
Most of that caustic uniqueness has been ripped away, even more than was the overscrubbed case at the Vineyard, to apply a faux timelessness to a work that is by necessity of the moment. Neither the year nor the name of the festival is uttered. Rewriting has toned down all but a small handful of less-recognizable actor and show namechecks. Some new references, particularly in the otherwise lively "An Original Musical" song, are so nakedly anachronistic (Shrek, Spring Awakening, The Little Mermaid) that Bowen and Bell should be ashamed of themselves.
Worse is the continued mangling of the cast's "troubled" history. The NYMF version achieved its greatest tenderness when Blickenstaff feared Bowen and Bell might replace her with Emily Skinner. At the Vineyard, Skinner was instead "slated" to assume Blickenstaff's role after NYMF. Now, Skinner has vanished entirely, and Sutton Foster threatened to take over on Broadway. (One can only assume that when [title of movie] comes out, someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones will be the newly divisive force.)
Because Blickenstaff's "tenuous" involvement with the project keeps changing form, one cannot know whether anything else should be taken seriously. Likewise, Bowen and Bell's new pre-Broadway bickering about selling out to matinee ladies loses its sting when you remember vividly the hip-deep theatre references that have been excised and the disinfectant that's been poured over many of the once-plentiful profanities. These attempts to fashion a more universal and more saleable property only further weaken what's always been a shaky excuse for self-referential jokes, and other convention-coveting changes and additions (unfocused new duets for the women, a "moving" and uselessly unironic power ballad) don't improve on the leftover NYMF numbers and gags.
What was once a rigorously original meditation on artistic inspiration is now (to quote from the show) a "toothless, gutless, and crotchless" backstage drama with an unusually peppy setup. No one should expect stage life to precisely mirror real life - dramatic invention is always a given. But Bowen and Bell deny themselves that pass here by making their attack on theatre's dangerous tendency toward untruthfulness as untruthful as it could be.
In the climactic anthem to individuality, Bowen sings, "We can either follow our instinct / Or take advice from every Joker / We can either be distinct / Or wind up merely mediocre." Powerful sentiments, but empty ones given the nature of the bargains time has shown Bowen and Bell willing to broker to get their break on Broadway.