Pillow Talking’s Review of [title of show]
Interestingly, there have been two shows in the 2016 season at TheatreWorks New Milford which speak to insiders – to writers and other artists in the literary and entertainment businesses. Each of them reflects the excitement, struggles, successes, and failures of the many individuals who risk putting it all out there to create something important – and like many artists, the characters look to carve their niche and just maybe to hit it big. The first, Seminar by Theresa Rebeck, which was about aspiring writers, graced the stage in February and March and was adeptly executed by director Alicia Dempster. The second, [title of show], with music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen and book by Hunter Bell and also directed by Dempster, currently is onstage and the subject of this review. While both shows have plenty of industry references, terms, as well as inside jokes galore, it isn't only insiders who can appreciate the wit and humor of the productions; in fact, many laypeople often are curious about how these things get done. And in case you need a little help with some of the terminology (or if you just want to appear hip and in-the-know), the program book for [title of show] provides you with a [tos]sary, itself defined as a [tos] = [title of show] glossary. Make sure you arrive a bit early so that you can bone up on the words and definitions beforehand – it's a quick but comprehensive, funny read and thankfully there's no quiz afterward!
[title of show] is metatheatre at its finest, employing something akin to the oft-used show-within-a-show device – except that it's a show about the making of a show which in turn is the show. Or more specifically, it's a musical based upon the true-life efforts of two aspiring musical creatives who race against the clock to write a production for inclusion in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It's during their frenzied three-week bender and their eleventh-hour, cramming-session delirium that they realize that all the material they need to create a clever, winning submission is what is happening during the writing process – what is going on in their own heads and the banter between them.
[title of show] never takes itself too seriously, all the while exploiting the mysticism surrounding the birth of musicals and making it to the Great White Way; but at the same time it is rife with insecurities, writer's block, back-biting, as well as comical Lynda Carter, Tim Gunn, and Brazilian wax (yes, it hurts like a mother f'in bitch) references. Alicia Dempster capably leads this excellent cast of four five through a clever journey which begins as Jeff (Michael L'Altrella) and Hunter (Rob Bassett), who are young, gay theatre lovers, wrestle to find a good premise for their musical. These "Two Nobodies in New York" knock their heads together and must give up Internet porn, old movies, and reality TV in order to find inspiration and carve out time to write and compose. When gal pals Susan (Carey Van Hollen) and Heidi (Ashley McLeod) join the guys, they not only add a little female spark to the story, but also some girl squabbling "What Kind of Girl Is She?". The final of the five characters, sad sack, oft-ignored Larry the keyboardist (Steven Oliveri) might as well be invisible. Eventually the stress gets to everyone and poor Larry isn't even included in the cast photos – "Awkward Photo Shoot."
Will they get accepted into the festival? – "Filling Out the Form." Will their musical get to go further than that? Will they have to conform to the will of others? – "Change It, Don't Change It." Will the foursome eat each other alive or just chow down on turkey burgers? That all remains to be seen (okay, they do get to Broadway). In one act with 18 musical numbers, what it all boils down to is that despite the pitfalls, problems, and pining away for commercial success, they all agree that they'd rather be "Nine People's Favorite Thing" rather than a hundred people's ninth-favorite thing. Quality is job one. (Yeah, I ripped that from Ford.)
As for the stellar cast, my husband/co-reviewer and I were thrilled when we realized we'd seen Michael L'Altrella a few months ago in Take Me Out at Bridgeport's The Bijou Theatre where he was incredible as racist, homophobic baseball pitcher Shane Mungitt. In [title of show] he's playing a completely different type of character – L'Altrella's Jeff is the worrier of the bunch, collector of flop-show Playbills, and a lover of all things Wonder Woman. Here he displayed his formidable acting chops once again as well as his versatility. Rob Bassett is a hysterically funny Hunter who goes shirtless from time to time to avoid left armpit sweat stains; he is charismatic and often over-the-top in the best of ways. Carey Van Hollen is believable as the quirky, earthy Susan whose day job doesn't fulfill her in the least and while her friends encourage her participation in the show, has her own doubts about her singing abilities (but she can sing!) Ashley McLeod was terrific as Susan, the Broadway songbird who's never quite made it out of the ensemble. She is bubbly and vibrant and surprisingly awesome at killing vampires (who knew?).
What works best about [title of show] is the chemistry among the cast members, who come off as playful and real – perfect, since the premise for show is supposed to be simply that – real. So whether they are belting out a musical number, complaining about trannies stealing shrimp, or texting back and forth about the newest and best drag names (like Lady Footlocker or Mini VanRental), this formidable foursome fivesome (is that a word?) brings exuberance and verve to the stage.
Kudos to Dempster for fostering the chemistry and her excellent vision; to Oliveri for musical direction; to Kathy Bolster as stage manager; Dempster and the cast for costumes; and Richard Pettibone for set design. Shout outs also to Pettibone and Scott Wyshynski for lighting; Pettibone and Dempster for sound and the rest of the crew for an all-around tight production.
[title of show] is like one long Snapchat story about the making of a musical (which wasn't even invented at the time that Bowen and Bell created their 2004 festival submission, but it might have been useful!). And while this story thankfully won't delete itself in 24 hours, it will have a limited run at TheatreWorks, so catch it before it disappears!
GEORGE: Yeah, but nothing happens on the show. You see, it's just like life. You know, you eat, you go shopping, you read. You eat, you read, you go shopping. – George Costanza "The Pitch" episode on Seinfeld
So Pillow talking came across an interesting little gem now playing at TheatreWorks New Milford called [title of show]. It's play within a play that is really about itself. Does that make sense? Self-referential works are certainly not sui generis – I mean, look at the reality television industry. We can even find self-referential works in scripted shows. Of course, one of the most famous was Seinfeld — a show that was touted as being about nothing. Even the big screen has had its share of self-referential films. There was the comedy, This Is the End with James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and others. And then, of course, there was the highly critically acclaimed film The Tree of Wooden Clogs that was about life in a small Italian village (and reportedly was one of Al Pacino's favorite films).
But [title of show] may be a unique self-referential piece for the theatre. It has been defined by highly authoritative sources (Wikipedia – yes, it has its own Wikipedia page) as a one-act musical with music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen and a book by Hunter Bell. The play retells the story of its own creation and journey to the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the Vineyard Theatre, and finally to The Great White Way. As one source colorfully put it, the play is "a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical."
So Jeff and Hunter are the two guys who write and star in the show. Along the way they elicit the help of two lady friends, Susan and Heidi. The success of [title of show] lies in the fact that it takes us behind the curtain. Indeed, we see the creative process all along the way as well as the ups and downs of getting a play produced and performed.
The talented cast was terrific at bringing this play-within-a-play to life. Pillow Talking loved Michael L'Altrella's performance as the homophobic, write trash baseball player in Take Me Out. His one-hundred-eighty-degree turn playing Jeff, a sensitive, gay writer here was no less than stunning. If it wasn't for his body tats (and the fact that my wife/co-reviewer pointed it out to me), I never would have recognized him. Rob Bassett as Hunter, the other half of the writing team, hit just the right tone as his equally as sensitive writing partner and friend. He also served as a good comedic foil to L'Altrella's partner. The lady friends, Susan and Heidi, played respectively by Carey Van Hollen and Ashley McLeod, also sang and acted their hearts out. A special nod must be given to Steve Oliveri, the musical director of the show, who was on stage throughout the play and played the original music director, Larry. His deadpan deliveries were simply hysterical.
Veteran stage Director Alicia Dempster did a great job with the staging and blocking. Pillow Talking appreciated her directorial work in the recent performance of Seminar as well as here.
The musical numbers really worked well and underscored the action. There were some standouts, however, including "Monkeys and Playbills," "Die Vampire, Die!", "Change It, Don't Change It," and "Nine People's Favorite Things."
It should be noted that there is nothing conventional about this show or its programs – and theatregoers are well advised not to toss them too quickly. They contain more than just cast and crew bios and local advertisements. Remember the glossary in Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange? Well there is a special [tos]sary in the program to help audiences better understand the terminology. Most are not only educational, but sidesplitting as well. Below is just a sampling:
Doc Hollywood – 1991 film featuring Michael J. Fox, currently running every hour on the hour on TBS.
Ass-broke – Without funds. Used like, "If I don't get that check from Paper Mill, I'm gonna be ass-broke, y'all."
Lynda Carter – The most beautiful actress in the world. For example, "If Jeff wasn't gay, he'd have a serious boner for Lynda Carter."
Props to Alice Dempster and to TheatreWorks New Milford for bringing this very different play to the community.