Characters in this week's musicals are either actors or writers - or both, in the case of the just-reopened [title of show]. It and The View From Here were both seen in The New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). The Green Room is from the West coast, but all concern creative people whose goal is to "make it" in New York. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Maybe.
[TITLE OF SHOW]
One of the lyrics in [title of show], a musical about creating a musical (wherein the writers play themselves), goes: "And maybe someday/ If we're lucky enough/ We'll all be in a studio/ Recording the show..." Well, now that bit about the original cast album is on an original cast album as life imitates art imitating life once again. The bonus track of the title song is introduced by some spoken moments as the participants, bursting with glee, acknowledge that they are making the recording. It fits right in with the "here we are in the moment - putting together a show" ambience and the "this is so cool!" feeling that is the conceit and flavor of this production. The enthusiasm, neuroses and dedication to their art on the part of the characters come through super-strongly on disc. So does the camaraderie and chemistry among the four-person cast. Bits of included dialogue help to show their personalities.
Songwriter Jeff Bowen and bookwriter Hunter Bell, who sing in unaffected voices, are entertaining and likeable. This is especially true in the earlier and sweeter wide-eyed songs, such as "Two Nobodies in New York," when they are puzzling out what and how to write for the competitive festival. As they brainstorm and cajole each other during a race against the writing deadline and writers' block, the performances are amiable. As in many other "struggle for success" backstage stories, the struggle has more audience appeal than does the success. A kind of smugness sets in as things progress that is less attractive. It's a love story where the people are falling in love with themselves and their work. Along the way, once again it is proven indisputably that there's no business like show business and the path to success can be paved with laughs and nifty musical numbers. One is "Die Vampire, Die," a rousing and empowering piece about stamping out the defeatist and discouraging words from real and imagined voices. It's led with panache and punch by Susan Blackwell, who wrote some additional lyrics for it. She and Heidi Blickenstaff have richer, beltier voices. Heidi delivers some needed deeper emotion and reflection towards the end with her solo "A Way Back to Then."
Disguised as stream-of-consciousness outbursts, the sharp songs about the theater (well, they're all about the theater!) are performed with relish and knowingness. Most are high-energy and upbeat. Record producers Joel Moss and Kurt Deutsch capture the atmosphere expertly. The one-man musical accompaniment is by the able Larry Pressgrove who is not only at the keyboard but did the arrangements.
Certainly [title of show] is a field day for those who live and breathe show biz, with its many mentions of musical comedy touchstones and inside jokes. References to everything from flop shows to theater websites are thrown around as freely as is some casual profanity for comic effect. After a hiatus, [title of show] has returned to The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan with the same company and for more information, its website, www.titleofshow.com is full of the same winks and spunk that jump out from the album. For those moments when you're convinced that there must be more to life than watching or performing in musical theater - but think that consists of writing musical theater - this is the dish to order. A line in the script compares a show that is too heavy on the clever to having "donuts for dinner." Point taken, but there's nothing half-baked or stale about these donuts.
My view on The View From Here is that it is impressive. I am not only impressed, but also touched, amused and - because of a dramatic turn in plot and tone that comes out of left field near the end - startled. The admirable music and lyrics are by Timothy Huang, all written to be sung by one performer. The task is handled with dignity and flair by the talented Shonn Wiley. He is sympathetic and engaging, sounding fully invested in the role throughout the recording.
Let's get the quibbles out of the way first. There are a handful of rhymes that are imperfect or seem forced and predictable. A few brief moments of high emotion in the singing are justifiable from a dramatic point of view, but just a touch harsh. The inclusion of a series of short spoken phone messages with beeps and rings seems unnecessary, but can be easily skipped over, as they are tracked separately. End of quibbles.
Composer-lyricist Timothy Huang's numbers for this tale of a writer (this one does not find acceptance) in New York City alternate in mood. Some have hopes raised, some have hopes dashed. Even in the dashing there is variety, expressed as despair or humor. Shonn, who has been seen on Broadway in the 42nd Street revival and Dracula and in Ragtime at the Papermill Playhouse, is versatile. With an plaintive ache in his tenor voice, he can portray loneliness; pouncing on the jazzier rhythms, he embodies sunny good spirits. Using his acting skills and comic timing, he's particularly good at expressing the writer's boiling frustrations encountering annoying people and the hurdles of big city life. What really comes through is the humanity of the character. It's an honest performance as well as an entertaining and riveting one. Through vulnerability without self-pity, plus a healthy dose of charm, Shonn grabs the listener's interest and heart.
In reality, it's not quite a one-man musical show. The character of a street musician with whom the writer interacts, is present: his reactions are expressed solely through his trumpet playing. Tim Byrnes is the trumpeter and adds musical flavor and personality. Likewise, musical director David Epstein, playing piano throughout, does marvelous things. His sensitive work with nuanced timing goes way beyond simple accompaniment: his figures set moods, make comments and at times are a driving force. There are no other musicians on the recording, which is well produced by Michael Cassara (its casting director), Meredith Patterson (who was associate producer of the production) and the songwriter (who co-wrote the book with director Elizabeth Lucas).
Song highlights include the ebulliently catchy "Unstoppable" and "Don't Ask Why," a tour de force story song about the day job from hell. The powerful ending number, "Promise," is ardently sung by the star and then (in a bonus track) the songwriter provides a double dose of catharsis and philosophy. Hopefully, the hopeful View From Here will be seen again soon and sounds like it would be well worth a look. Likewise, be on the lookout for more from songwriter Timothy Huang and a standout singer-actor, Shonn Wiley.
UNDER THE RADAR
Not a New York festival entry, but with some of the youthful energy and edge so many NYMF and Fringe entries have, is this musical by California-based writers.
THE GREEN ROOM
Attempting a musical look at college life, the folks involved with The Green Room give it "the old college try" and a lot of it works. The characters are four friends, sometimes romantically involved, are also theater students. Their ultimate goal is to finish college and move together to try their luck in New York City's professional theater world. Composer-lyricist Chuck Pelletier shows real flair for comedy numbers with some wit and clever rhyming. His serious songs are less interesting and not as fully realized, though earnest. The score's mix of styles includes pieces that evoke traditional musical comedy, pop, folk and comical pastiche blues.
Although the score is uneven and could use some retooling, there is talent here. Interestingly, one of the most delightful songs is a group number that's meant to be a badly written show tune for their school musical about the Bible. Singing a capella to Moses, they implore him, "Don't try to part the water, you'll only kill the fish" and, "You're such a mystic/ Be realistic." It takes a smart writer to write a song so purposefully "bad" that it's good. It's a hoot, with the lyric recalling every awkwardly phrased lyric attempting to make history sing and with a bit of the melody echoing West Side Story's "Gee, Officer Krupke" if it were a madrigal. Besides theater, sex is much in the foursome's thoughts and thus in the lyrics.
Brandon Burton is the most consistently winning and sparkles as Cliff, who graduates both from college and geekhood, finding possible love and unintended fatherhood along the way. He also works well with the other cast members: with Kirsten Gronfield as his sister (Anna) there's a commiserating duet about others only wanting them for lustful purposes ("The All-You-Wanna-Do-Is-Do-Me Blues") and with Patrick Killoran as Anna's boyfriend John, they do well with the male bonding "Bachelor's Anthem." However, Patrick is vocally adrift and Kirsten also less assured when they're paired for "What Do I Think of Me?" Karen Volpe as the assertive Divonne gets the best number, a diva powerhouse called "It's All About Me." This knockout number is the self-deluding point of view of an actress who insists that each show she's in really revolves around her character, no matter how small the role. Each example cited defies logic and is wildly funny. "It's All About Me" was chosen by The Songwriters' Guild of America as a 2005 winner as Song of the Year in the musical theater category. I suspect it will be grabbed as a comic showpiece by smart female singers for cabaret and concerts. It's very amusing and done superbly here.
The musical accompaniment is the composer on piano and guitar plus a drummer and bass player. A song called "We've Got Style" has the four students assessing themselves and commenting not only on their perceived style, but also mentions potential and sincerity. The album, despite its weak spots, has notable quantities of these things, too--style, potential and sincerity.
And those are our shows for the week. Curtain.