‘[title of show]’ takes audiences on a funhouse ride
Fiction holds a mirror up to life. When fiction holds a mirror up to fiction, you enter the meta-fictional fun house in which John Barth got lost. One musical in particular comes to mind. The show’s title is “[title of show].” It’s a musical about putting on a musical. The Asolo Conservatory is putting on that musical. It’s a funhouse all right — a self-referential mirror maze. It’s tough to describe, but here goes …
The fictional ride began in the real world. Back in 2004, two struggling theater types — composer/lyricist Jeff Bowen and playwright Hunter Bell — decided to submit a new musical for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Adapt an old movie? Nah, it has to be totally original. A lofty ambition — due in three weeks. Considering the time crunch, they didn’t make stuff up. Instead, Bell and Bowen took the “Write what you know” principle to an insanely literal degree and decided to create a musical about two struggling theater types (named Jeff and Hunter) trying to create a musical. After that …
If somebody ordered a pizza, “I want a pizza” got into the script. If their real-life friends, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, acted in the show, “Susan” and “Heidi” became characters in the script. (The musical got into the festival, both in reality and in the musical.) More ups and downs ensue, but you get the idea.
We are now exiting the Möbius strip. Please keep your hands at your sides until we come to a complete stop.
Feeling dizzy? That’s the ride, folks. And the meta-fictional loop-de-loop isn’t the point, anyway. Inside baseball, inside jokes, inside information. That’s the point (which explains the howls of delight and recognition from theater students. This musical holds a mirror up to their lives, and they dig it). It also functions as “Writing a Musical for Dummies” — a neat, 90-minute workshop. You could teach from it, and the conservatory probably did.
Director Amanda Friou deftly walks the comedic line between hip, self-consciousness and audience engagement. That tightrope’s built into the material — but she walks it without a net and makes it look easy.
The high-energy student actors make you cheer for their quirky, believable characters. Joe Knispel (Jeff) and Evan Reynolds White (Hunter) have a great comic rhythm as two down-and-out partners trying to hit the Broadway big time with a crazy new concept. Kim Stephenson (Heidi) and Ally Farzetta (Susan) are winning, sophisticated and sexy — and land a few well-aimed jabs at the Broadway boy’s club. Darren Server, the long-suffering, usually ignored keyboard artist (and real-life musical director), creates most of the music. He gets in a few good lines, too.
Set designer Chris McVicker spared no expense giving substance to this vision. We’re talking four beat-up chairs and something I couldn’t identify. Instead of “Rent,” it’s “Low Rent.” But the minimalism nicely serves the musical’s shabby origins.
Bowen’s songs have a sophisticated, bouncy wit. They’re tightly tethered to the narrative, but a few stand out. “An Original Musical” (featuring White as a blank sheet of paper) is a fine parody of Dave Frishberg’s “I’m Just a Bill” on “Schoolhouse Rock.” “Change it/Don’t Change It” captures the dithering of artists losing their nerve. “Die Vampire, Die!” is a cri de coeur against the voices telling artists to quit.
It all adds up to a smart, funny show packed with hilarious, believable dialogue and the pace of a funhouse ride. A wild ride it is, with occasional bumps. The insider references get a bit too thick; the one-liners a little too sitcomy. The story gets stuck when the Broadway bid hits a snag. How do we know one character’s gay? His limp wrist tells us. But this is all minor stuff.
On a ride like this, you’re going to hit a few bumps. Bowen and Bell’s musical is entertainment. But it’s also an experiment. Stick to a formula, and your work will be slick. Try something new, and you’ll have some rough edges. New stuff is like that …
But the ride’s a whole lot of fun.