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Paulanne Simmons

"Gutenberg! The Musical!" Is a New Take on an Old Type


Jeremy Shamos and Christopher Fitzgerald in a rehearsal for "Gutenberg! The Musical!" Photo by Wes Apfel

"Gutenberg! The Musical!"
Directed by Dave Mowers
Sage Theater
711 7th Ave., between 47th and 48th streets
Opened Sept. 22, 2006
Two more performances Sept. 30 at 1 & 4:30 p.m.
$20 (212) 352-3101 or www.NYMF.org
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Sept. 28, 2006

How wonderful! As the summer theater festivals wind down and Broadway gets into gear, along comes a musical that makes a perfectly marvelous bridge between seasons!

"Gutenberg! The Musical!" was written by Anthony King and Scott Brown and developed at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in 2003. It premiered at London's Jerym Street Theatre in January 2006, and now it's making its U.S. premiere at The Sage Theatre as part of the third annual New York Musical Theatre Festival.

The show is a two-hander starring Christopher Fitzgerald ("Wicked") and Jeremy Shamos ("The Rivals"), who play buddies Bud Davenport and Doug Simon, the creators of a musical about Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press. As Doug and Bud, they also play all thirty characters in their musical (identifiable by labeled baseball caps and the actors' tremendous talent). "Gutenberg! The Musical" is brilliantly directed by Dave Mowers, who took excellent care of the wonderful piece of writing he was given and his talented actors.

"Gutenberg! The musical!" may be the spoof to end all spoofs. Presented as a backers' audition for Doug and Bud's project, it successfully parodies the typical Broadway musical as well as the system that creates it. Along the way, it has great fun with various musical genres, from gospel to the Broadway chorus line. Not to mention what "Gutenberg! The Musical!" has to say about history.

According to "Gutenberg! The Musical!" the inventor was a winemaker who dreamed of teaching the world to read. He was thwarted by the young, naïve woman who loves him, Helvetica; and an evil monk who didn't want people to infringe on his franchise by learning how to read for themselves. There are lots of minor characters too, like an anti-Semitic flower girl and a younger monk who keeps getting shot in the chest with a pencil hurled by the evil monk.

Most delightfully, Doug and Bud stop the play-within-the-play from time to time to explain the theatrical conventions behind what they are presenting. Thus the audience learns about character development, metaphor, the first act finale and the charm song (given to a popular actor so he will agree to be in the show and ensure backing from a Broadway mogul).

Doug and Bud's innocent sincerity and wily bungling have the effect of making the show into an exceptional parody of those didactic elementary school plays about everything from the landing of the Mayflower to the blessings of multiculturalism, productions we all remember with horror and longing. There's even a bit of audience interaction that leaves everyone humming the last song, the hallmark of a sure-fire hit.

"Gutenberg! The Musical!" has everything a behind-the-scenes musical should have and most often doesn't: originality, humor, great songs and a touch of the ridiculous; and nothing it shouldn't have: jokes told for members of the inner circle, self-importance and the mistaking of cute for funny. And it's all done with two energetic actors with perfect timing and an amazing ability to interact, a few meager props, and let's not forget the piano player, Matt Castle.

"Gutenberg! The Musical!" works so well in a small theater one is torn between the desire to see the musical make it to Broadway and the fear that an actual Broadway production will take away its natural charm. All one say is, "We love you just the way you are."


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