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Glenda Frank

AUGUST MUSICALS, Part 1/2: "[title of show]"


"[title of show]" Music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen. Book by Hunter Bell.
Directed and choreographed by Michael Berresse.
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15 St., NYC.
July 4 -- Oct. 1, 2006
Mon., Tues., Wed., Fri. Sat. at 8; Thurs. 7 and 10; Sat. 5 PM.
For tickets 212-279-4200 $40 Thurs. at 10; $59.

Reviewed by Glenda Frank

August and July, those sleepy summer months in the city, arrived with basketsful of theatre festivals -- and many of them have been selling-out to the eight million (New Yorkers), not to tourists. Summer also brought new musicals that showcased a form struggling to remake itself. Since Feb., when it opened at the Vineyard Theatre, "[title of show]" has been snowballing its way toward prime time. "Shout!," a nostalgic review from Britain, is faithful to the 1960s, set in a garden of abstract flowers and sung by four "birds" in neon dresses and miniskirts. "The Capitol Steps" lifted the satirical lyric to new heights with unexpected clever twists while so much other political comedy appears increasingly sophomoric.

The first time around "[title of show]" was delightful, delicious, delectable, and sprinkled generously with surprises. It was a crisp, just-in-time delivery from theatre's FreshDirect school of thinking. In its second visit to the Vineyard Theatre this year, from July through Oct., it tastes even better, and, no, it hasn't been revised. "[title of show]" is the current "Avenue Q," the new "Urinetown" -- the latest stop on a musical roadmap of the 21st century, complete with built-in profiles of the kind of talent who will write them. This new generation of musicals is not so much about situations as it is about the thirtysomethings who are trying to find their niche and make a mark.

"[title of show]" falls into the genre of backstage musical, and is most similar to "A Chorus Line." Two very appealing guys with different approaches to work are ambling toward a collaborative musical -- until word of a fringe festival comes along. With script and score due in three weeks, they not only have to devise a concept and fill-in the scenes, they also have to turn off the TV. The only idea that strikes them as original is their struggle to create so they keep a detailed journal of their lives, burn the optic wires, formulate songs, and manage their anxiety enough to apply ("Filling out the Form"). Then they hold auditions and add two women to the process. They find their arc in their personal stories, finish on time, and win a production. Then comes the real pressure -- to change the script and cast. "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing/Than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing," they all sing with relief. They have found their compass.

If "[title of show]" were only reality theatre (with time out to rewrite), it would offer a mild fascination: to hear the composer (Jeff Bowen) sing his own songs and enjoy the self-parody of two writers in an inane conversation that is repeated by them as performers onstage: "So everything I say from now on could actually be in our show?" asks Hunter. "Yeah!" replies Jeff. "So I can say ‘Wonder Woman for president' and it'll get in our show?" "Sure." "Wonder Woman for president." There is a series of tape recorded rejections by celebrities invited to join the cast -- and then a surprise request by Emily Skinner for more information. It's like a running-joke, but a joke that encapsulates the struggle to get a show on its feet.

These light comical moments take many turns, from backstage gossip and namedropping (much of which went over my head but not the audience's, but was often funny in context anyway); to slapstick; fart, masturbation and mother jokes; and observations of the current scene, as when Hunter sings about a transy (transvestite) stealing a shrimp from his plate at an outdoor restaurant. (It made his day!)

As the un-plot thickens, the characters, who bear the names (and maybe the personalities) of the performers, emerge as distinct people with their own quirks, hang-ups, senses of humor, and dreams. Jeff insists on proper grammar. Hunter's imagination has flight patterns all his own. Susan Blackwell is a dry comedienne with a sense of underplayed poignancy, especially when she talks about the deadly pall of her day job in an office, then shrugs it off. The amiable Heidi Blickenstaff is sure she is going to be replaced when the show moves on and wonders about another actor playing a character named Heidi, modeled on her ("I Am Playing Me"). Heidi also sings "A Way Back to Then", about her wish as a girl to perform, which seemed more out-of-reach as she grew older. And now, with this musical, she's there, in a world full of possibilities. It's a song that speaks for all our dreams.

The performers are so comfortable on stage -- and so talented -- that it's easy to forget that Michael Berresse directed and choreographed the scenes, that Larry Pressgrove provided music direction and arrangements, that Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz lighted the scenes. Once the initial surprise of the laid-back dialogue and unexpected concept decline, the art shines through -- in the conflicts, the hints of love interest (friendship really), the interpersonal problems, the catchy duets and ballads. Although tooted as a show for theatre mavens, it is very funny, quirky, warm-hearted, original, and accessible to everyone. And, if you believe Susan's song ("Die, Vampire, Die") it also chases away demons.

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