Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Smokey Joe's Cafe
The journey of the musical's often bumpy and near disastrous birthing and its eventual off-and-on-again trip to an actual Broadway stage is the subject of [title of show], now being staged at Los Altos Stage Company as originally conceived with only four chairs (two that roll around) and a piano. (Ok, there is a rolling table that is brought in at one point and an urban look given in Yusuke Soi's bricked apartment building walls in the background.) The result is that we feel we are actually watching the show that we are watching being conceived, written, practiced, and produced real-time before our eyes. There are lines that must have been said in that three-week birthing period of 2004 that now provide chuckles when included in a finished show ("I feel we should just cut this scene"), and there are times when the mostly silent pianist (played here by Katie Coleman as Larry) stops action to help an actor (usually Susan) get back on key. When there is writer's block, the stage becomes silent and still; when an actor is hungry, a hamburger arrives while lines are spit out along with bun's crumbs; and when shit happens, the f-words fly, followed by looks of embarrassment.
Doug Brook directs the Lost Altos production in such a way as to ensure that the script's intention of appearing contemporaneous and spontaneous is upheld as much as possible. Exuberance of hitting a surprise high point in the musical's traverse to a live audience (even as this audience watches) is often shown in cast squeals and high-fives that look more like kids on a playground than actors on a stagean oft-repeated burst of cacophonous screams that frankly gets a bit old and over-bearing in the small LACT arena. But the director makes many choices in staging the clever script that make the writing feel it is happening now while reminding us tongue-in-cheek that this is in fact a staged version. (An example of the latter is rolling the chair quickly across the stage to move Hunter to Jeff's apartment and then making a joke of how that was not enough time for the audience to believe he had actually traveled there real-time.)
What Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell brilliantly did in making their last-minute submission to the festival the subject of their entry is to open the kimono of the joys and frustrations, hits and misses, highs and lows of creating a new piece of work for the stage. The tensions, near break-ups, and inevitable tears happen on the stage before us as they probably actually did in 2004 and as they probably do for many co-creators of other new works. We also experience the silly sidetracks, the boring times, and the moments of sudden inspiration that appear authentic and as if happening before us for the first time for this team, but surely happen every time for most creative duos. And along the way, we have the fun of their wild and wooly brainstorms that at one point lead to Jeff and Hunter rattling off dozens upon dozens of short-lived, failed Broadway musicals as they look for inspiration in "Monkeys and Playbills." We can only wonder how many other writing teams have probably done the same.
Nick Rodrigues and Derek DeMarco convincingly and endearingly recreate the roles that the musical's real creators, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, took all the way to Broadway. As Hunter, Nick Rodrigues employs an impressive tenor voice, a face full of popping expressions, and a boyish quality fresh and unpredictable. He fully embodies both the bubbling enthusiasm it takes to drive a project like a musical's creation to completion as well as the dictatorial demon that can often emerge as push comes to shove and decisions must be made by someone about what and whom to cut and to keep.
Derek DeMarco's Jeff has a voice with a somewhat sharp edge that makes him human and New York but not always able to blend in as well as it could, as he sings in duets and with the full cast. His Jeff is a nice anchor and counter-force for the more intense Hunter, and together they show both the energy and the challenges that a book writer and composer/lyricist must have.
That same inability always to blend well in numbers sung with her castmates happens for Jocelyn Pickett as Heidi. Her powerful voice often is at a volume of "ten" when a "six" or "seven" would be more appropriate for the small stage and for a cast of four singers. That said, Ms. Pickett is a joy to watch as the talky, pushy Heidi; and when she does ramp back her vocal chords just a bit, she scores one of the musical's best-sung, most successful numbers in "A Way Back to Then."
In the "real-life" nature of the script-in-making, Susan seems to be the most reticent, often almost forgotten member of the creative foursome. She is also the one who self-purports to have the most trouble singing. Either by design of casting, directing or acting, all that remains true in Caroline Clark's portrayal of Susan. Ms. Clark holds her own in her acting and singing but does not leave a mark as memorable compared to her three cohorts.
Mae Heagerty-Matos cloaks the cast in duds that fit both the real-time aspect of four, young New Yorkers and the differing personalities each brings to the story. The lighting of Carol Fischer accents well the story unfolding and becomes a major fixture of the scenic design for the intimate stage. Ken Kilen's sound design ensures nicely timed off-stage cues to enter the story, including an ongoing sequence of voice mails that aid in scene and time shifts.
[title of show] is a unique, even ground-breaking addition to the American musical scene, especially for any theatre-lover who has not yet experienced the 2008 Off-Broadway/Broadway show. In this, my third time seeing the show, I found myself becoming a bit impatient with the script's unique devices of recreating the musical's real-time journey, especially once the writing is mostly done and we are waiting for its acceptance onto bigger stages beyond the festival. That said, Los Altos Theatre Company is staging an admirable [title of show] that should delight initiates to the Bowen/Bell ninety-minute piece and will leave them with a greater understanding of what it takes to go from pen on blank paper to songs sung on Broadway stage.
[title of show] continues through June 24, 2017, by Los Altos Stage Company at the Bus Barn Theatre, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos CA. Tickets are available online at losaltosstage.org.