Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Nerds://A Musical Software Satire
Nerds is a musical that purports to tell the story of how the computer business has developed over the past thirty years, but its tone is so irreverent that it practically winks at the audience for two hours as if to say "don't take this seriously." Unfortunately, that means this show is sometimes a little too slight for its own good; it works at one cute level, but never tries to go much further. Still, if you're willing to meet it on its own ridiculous terms, you'll have a good time at Nerds - I certainly did.
Nerds://A Musical Software Satire tells the story of the development of Apple Computer, led by the laid-back Steve Jobs, and Microsoft, led by the hyper Bill Gates. (Whether these portrayals of Jobs and Gates are accurate is pretty much irrelevant - these are caricatures which bear only the slightest resemblance to real people named Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.) In this version, they meet in 1975 as students in the Homebrew Computer Club, each developing their own machines. Jobs works with a serious-minded partner, Steve Wozniak, while Gates' sidekick is Paul Allen, a grown man carrying a Doctor J doll. Jobs and Gates soon become rivals - not just for wealth and computing glory but for the nerdy girls of the computer club. Most of all, these guys are obsessed with being cool. Jobs is the coolest of the nerds - he plays guitar, smokes pot and says that his aim is "to be a rock star" - while Gates rises to become the world's richest man still daydreaming of what sex must be like. (Needless to say, there's no Melinda Gates in this tall tale.) Neither man is above stealing ideas - Gates from Jobs, Jobs from Xerox - and stepping on the people around them to achieve world domination. Eventually each man pays a price for his lack of conscience. But will they really see the light, or just keep cashing checks?
Nerds opens with an uptempo number about how nerdy all the computer club members are; that's followed by a plaintive ballad in which Gates laments how nerdy he is. At that point, I began wondering if all the songs would be about the same subject; as it turned out, I was half right - more than fifty percent of the songs are about the trials and tribulations of nerd-dom. And after the show makes its initial points - that nerds are objects of ridicule but deserving of sympathy, and that, as one character says, "We all know what it's like to be bullied" - it doesn't really have much to say. All this show is concerned about is making jokes, no matter how smug and condescending those jokes might be.
Yet Nerds is so light and breezy that it's hard to resist. The book by Jordan Allen-Dutton and Erik Weiner makes this group of losers lovable, even if it goes overboard on the corny gags and puns (like when Gates complains that "Jobs goes home with the girl while we go home with our disks in our hands").
Hal Goldberg's catchy music catches fire in some clever parody numbers - progressive rock in "Revolution Starts With One," new wave in "Macintosh," rap in "Windows," gospel in "Think Different" - but is somewhat colorless when it doesn't have a style to make fun of. The lyrics (by Allen-Dutton and Weiner) have some occasionally clumsy wordplay - since when does "doesn't" rhyme with "lovin'"? - but are mostly enjoyable.
Philip Wm. McKinley (director of Broadway's The Boy From Oz) seems to have instructed his actors to go for broke and play every line as broadly as possible - and yet it works, because there would be no sense in playing this material realistically. There's not one weak performer in McKinley's cast. Standouts include Jim Poulos as the overexcited Gates, Andrew Cassese as the nave Allen, Charlie Pollock as the mellow Jobs, and Joseph Dellger as the blustery IBM president who can't believe his company has been bested by a bunch of young upstarts. (As if to prove that Nerds is one big cartoon, Dellger gets his biggest laugh when he quotes a line from Scooby-Doo.) And Chandra Lee Schwartz and Emily Shoolin shine as the geeky girls who love the geeky guys, even though their characters are even more cardboard than the men, if that's possible.
Joey McKneely's choreography is consistently clever and engaging, especially when it shows the rhythmically impaired Gates trying to do a rap number. The projections by Zachary Borovay add to the humor, although sometimes David Gallo's scenery gets in the way of those jokes.
Nerds isn't for everyone. There are a lot of people who just won't get the computer jokes (and some of them seemed to be sitting around me on opening night, puzzled by the whole enterprise). If you don't know what an ink jet cartridge is, this isn't the show for you. And if you want to see a show with some depth, with characters that you care about, this isn't the show for you. But if you've ever been frustrated by a computer, and you wanted to see the men who shaped the computer age get their comic comeuppance, come see Nerds - this show will definitely make you laugh. And I'm sure that if they came to see this show, the real Gates, Jobs, Allen and Wozniak would be laughing too.
All the way to the bank.
Nerds runs through Sunday, February 25, 2007 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $15 to $54, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420, online at www.phillytheatreco.com, or by visiting the box office.
Nerds://A Musical Software Satire
Cast (in order of appearance):