The No-Name Show
Over the years there have been a lot of shows about...well...putting on a show, perhaps the most famous being Forty-Second Street, but there's Kiss Me, Kate, A Chorus Line, Babes in Arms, Summer Stock, and we can't forget The Producers, Noises Off and Lend Me a Tenor. Broadway (and Hollywood) often likes to look at itself in the mirror and the audience likes the feel of being behind the scenes. Well, [title of show], which recently opened at TheatreWorks New Milford, takes the premise one step further, for the musical is a chronicle of its own gestation, with the character names - Jeff, Hunter, Susan and Heidi - the first names of the people who originally created and starred in the show. Laden with show business inside jokes and references, it may not be everyone's cup of tea, especially for those who stopped thinking about musicals about the time The King and I opened, but under the perceptive direction of Alicia Dempster, this is a delightful evening of musical theater with four talented actors who easily give the impression that it is they who are creating the show.
Why the odd name: [title of show]? Well, that refers to the line on the application for submission of an original musical to the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which authors Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell received three weeks before submission deadline. They couldn't come up with a premise, so they decided to write a musical about writing a musical – they couldn't come up with a title, so they just wrote in the words on the application's line. Such is art imitating life, or vice-versa – it's a fluid proposition.
So Jeff (Michael L'Altrella) and Hunter (Rob Bassett) set about chronicling their efforts to create a musical with the help of two actresses, Susan (Carey Van Hollen) and Heidi (Ashley McLeod). Somewhat at a loss, they appropriately title the first number in the show "Untitled Opening Number," which details the standard requirements for an opening number in a Broadway musical. This having you cake and eating it to pervades the evening – many songs deal with accepted musical standards while, at the same time, capture the emotions of those who are creating the musical. It's an intriguing conceit that works, and includes some Brechtian moments when the characters question whether they should be on stage since lines haven't yet been written for them.
The musical also deals with the angst and anxiety inherent in the acting profession: the roles you accept just to get on stage, the endless casting calls, the self-doubts that haunt, the questioning of the 'persona' you are projecting, the envy and petty jealousies that arise when you are constantly being judged, often by standards that are, at best, arbitrary.
Set in what appears to be a rehearsal hall (set designed by Richard Pettibone), with musical director Steven Oliveri at the electronic keyboard (impassive throughout most of the evening until he questions why he isn't being included in publicity photographs), the musical is dialogue-dense – you have to pay attention to the banter between the four actors to "get" what this is all about.
This is a show where there is no place for the actors to hide – they are out there in a minimal set with limited props – it's all on them, and they deliver. Yes, timing of lines was, at certain moments, a bit questionable, but this was opening night – one can assume that it will become more fluid as the run progresses – but there's no denying that these four actors know what they are doing, and do it quite well.
The bitchy chemistry between Jeff and Hunter is made manifest early on by L'Altrella and Bassett (Basset being the 'bitchier' of the two). Their interaction smartly captures the tensions and disagreements inherent in the joint creation of a work of art. The two actresses, each creating a distinct character, also function as something of a Greek chorus, commenting on the two men's efforts. There are no "big" numbers in the show, but there are memorable musical moments, chief among them "Die Vampire, Die!" led by the luminous Van Hollen as she details the various 'vampires' that seek to suck away an artist's creativity. Then there's Heidi's "A Way Back to Then," which evokes the "At the Ballet" number from A Chorus Line, as it deals with young dreams and aspirations unfulfilled.
For those who occasionally drop by a theater to take in a road show of a mega-hit, the goings on in [title of show] may be a bit mystifying, but for those who are devotees of this uniquely American art form, [title of show] is a feast and an inventive, engaging evening of theater enhanced by four actors who create memorable characters. You either get the "Secondary Characters" song in the Montage medley, or you don't. You may scratch your head at the "Monkeys and Playbills" number or revel in its absurdity (and the inherent rolling of the dice whenever a musical is boarded on Broadway). If you love musical theater then you will find that you are one of the nine people out of a hundred who find [title of show] your "favorite thing."
[title of show] runs weekends through July 31. For tickets or more information call 860-350-6863 or go online to theatreworks.us.
Next up at TheatreWorks is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. One can only wonder how the 1962 film starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart will be translated to the stage.