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What's That Smell?: The Music of Jacob Sterling

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Peter Bartlett and David Pittu.
Photo by Doug Hamilton

It's every musical lover's dream: Whenever some smarmy know-it-all starts babbling about the death of the musical theatre, he's drowned out by piercing klaxons and forced to ooze back into his well-deserved obscurity. It's a bit over the top, as those kinds of prognostications are usually premature. But isn't it wonderful that someone cares enough to shut them off as soon as they start?

That's the modus operandi of Leonard Swagg, the host of Composers & Lyricists of Tomorrow (or CLOT), the must-see cable-access show for the connected musical theatre aficionado. Leonard never lets his up-and-coming guests wallow in anyone else's self-pity, even as they bathe in their own debatable talent. One such cleansing is on view now at Atlantic Stage 2, in the form of a giddily demented show titled What's That Smell?: The Music of Jacob Sterling, though under normal circumstances it would try the most patient defender of the form.

But Leonard doesn't have to worry, and neither do you. David Pittu, who wrote the script and the lyrics (to Randy Redd's music), co-directed (with Neil Pepe), and stars as Jacob never gives you reason to fear such alarms in the "real" world. That they should probably be sounding left and right given the snatches of work that Leonard (Peter Bartlett) elicits from Jacob during their 75-minute chat is the presiding irony of this evening determined to prove talent sometimes lands where it belongs.

It's clear from our first exposure to Jacob's words in a pre-show projection ("I sometimes feel sick from all the music inside me") what we're up against. But as Leonard guides us through Jacob's growing up Jewish and gay, moving to and being moved by New York, and eventually developing his own brand of successful failure, glancing blows with reality make it impossible to dismiss the show, or its writers, as out for the cheese.

Sure, Jacob is the recipient of (among others) the I Can't Believe It's Not Butter Foundation Genius Grant for Emerging American Composers; he's the author of song cycles about New York City, international cuisine, September 11, and gender-indiscriminate romance; and he masterminded (intended but aborted) musicalizations of the films Private Benjamin and La Femme Nikita. But given what's landed on Broadway in recent seasons, is any of this really that far-fetched?

As Jacob and Leonard commiserate about Jacob's Broadway-bound mall musical, Shopping Out Loud, there's a ringing undercurrent of reality that grounds and amplifies the fun into a stinging critique of today's corrosive creative climate. Redd's tunes are infectiously stuffy, and Pittu's lyrics are pointedly "almost there" in their bullseye evocations of self-absorbed songsters obsessed with surface-level spirituality, politics, and sex (if not necessarily in that order).

In their performances, at least, the central duo never flags. Bartlett's playing a straightforward adaptation of his typical conquering queen - most recently seen, to lesser effect, in Paul Rudnick's The New Century at Lincoln Center - but nails every tut-tutting mannerism and swirling tongue that identify Leonard as operating too fully within his element. And Pittu summons an intoxicatingly straight-faced blend of humility and holier-than-thou that recalls the adventuresome spirit of Broadway "post-modernists" such as Jason Robert Brown and Michael John LaChiusa without the gratifying grace of ability.

Fervent theatregoers will need no reminding of Pittu's Renaissance Man abilities; his performances in straight plays, musicals, and comedies as diverse as The Coast of Utopia, LoveMusik, and Is He Dead? have identified him as an indispensable star rapidly on the rise. Jacob, as written, acted and sung, and staged, proves a fabulous showcase for his talents for uniting urbane sophistication with down-in-the-mud grit gulping.

Pittu overshoots only once, if significantly, when it's Jacob and three of his protegees (Brandon Goodman, Matt Schock, and Heléne Yorke) preview Shopping Out Loud for Leonard. The catalog of sampled songs targeting stores such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Ann Taylor to Brooks Brothers and Victoria Secret is just a labored variation of what we've already been laughing about for an hour, minus any hint of a minutely inspired sheen. It doesn't define new heights of artistic decrepitude, it just seems desperate.

That's the one thing What's That Smell? can never be - Jacob and Leonard must convince us that they believe so strongly in Jacob's art that they've grown blind to the 40-story faults staring them down. The joke of the show isn't "Isn't this bad?" - it's "This is how In My Life and High Fidelity happened." The difference is subtle but crucial: One is a temporary itch, the other a lingering boil. What's That Smell? is never at its funniest when it forgets that it, Jacob, and Leonard are supposed to be the best new show in town. But when it remembers, that's just what they all seem like.

What's That Smell?: The Music of Jacob Sterling
Through September 28
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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