Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Lyric Arts Main Street Stage has mounted a perfectly delightful production of this quirky show, which ranks among the most unlikely commodities to have ever found a berth on the Great White Way. [title of show] is about Bell and Bowen themselves, two struggling musical theater strivers who, in 2004, had three weeks to create a show from scratch for submission to the New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF). For lack of a better idea, they decide their show will be about their efforts to write a show. And what is the show by these wannabe Rodgers and Harts about? About two guys writing a show. So many things seem wrong with this gambit: its total solipsism, it's theater-insider snark, and, anyway, who cares about watching a show get written, what we want is to watch the show–right?
Well, guess what? The lads pulled it off. In 2004, [title of show] was accepted by NYMF in its inaugural year. This led to further development of the show at the esteemed Eugene O'Neil Theater Center, then an Off-Off-Broadway engagement, resulting in a slot in a well-regarded Off-Broadway nonprofit theater company's 2006 season. Bowen and Bell continued to work on the show to include each of these steps in its gestation. After the Off-Broadway run, it seemed like the end of its successful but unorthodox ride. And yet ... ballsy self-promotion and game producers kept the wheels churning, resulting in opening night at the Lyceum in 2008. Although its Broadway stay was short-lived, productions at regional theaters all around the country have kept [title of show] alive more than fourteen years later. And counting.
To broaden the show, Bowen and Bell invite two friends, Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell, to join them as "characters." Not that two characters had been written, mind you. Heidi and Susan are the characters. Blickenstaff is a working New York actress, landing parts as understudies to the ensemble in Broadway shows. She knows she is lucky just to earn a living as an actor, but hungers for a wider spotlight. Blackwell had given acting up for the security of a corporate job, but continues to be constantly "on," making jokes, using exaggerated gestures, and speaking in wacky character voices. She clearly is not done with performing. Their addition to [title of show] amounts to the inclusion of songs about their roles in the show–Heidi has a witty song about having signed on to play herself–and about the arc from distrust to friendship between them. They also bring two more voices to the stage, allowing for lovely harmonics in many of the songs.
Bowen's book is witty and rings with authenticity, depicting the stress of working under a deadline, the bickering between friends, and the lurking insecurities. Admittedly, there is a lot of insider theater world snark, which will tickle someone steeped in theater, but may be lost on other audience members. Lyric Arts generously includes a reference guide to some of those obscure references in the program. (Being included among their targets is a badge of honor–which is why I loved a shot aimed at our very own Talkin' Broadway's All That Chat message board.) Beneath the jokes and digs, the book conveys deep affection for its characters, for the universe of musical theater, and for anyone striving to release their creative impulses.
Bell's songs are never less than agreeable, and several are outright memorable. "Untitled Opening Number" is simply that–it isn't about anything more than the convention of starting a musical with an opening salvo. Several songs display the process of making a musical: creating the work ("An Original Musical"), managing the work ("Filling Out the Form"), and promoting the work ("September Song"). "Die, Vampire, Die!" is a self-help lesson on purging all the negative messages collected as we pass through life–funny stuff, but not without insight. "A Way Back to Then" is a lovely song expressing the longing to find the joys of our youth in the lives we live as adults.
The knock-out is "Nine People's Favorite Thing." The refrain "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing" speaks to the realization that you cannot please everyone, but if you are true to yourself a core of those with like visions will find you and love you. In addition to this wise and affirming message, the wording "I want to be nine people's favorite thing" rather than "I want my work to be nine people's favorite work" reveals how deeply personal is this creative impulse. Their work does not stand apart, they are the work.
Through all its developmental steps and clear on to Broadway, Bell, Bowen, Blackwell, Blickenstaff and music director/on stage keyboardist Larry Pressgrove played themselves on stage. Of course, it was inevitable that once [title of show] became the success its creators dreamt it would be, they would have to yield those roles to other performers. Lyric Arts does the creators proud with a winning cast in all five parts. Bradley Johnson's Jeff sometimes comes across as straight man to Brendan Nelson Finn's flippant Hunter–not that either of them comes across as a straight man. They have good chemistry as creative collaborators (who are not romantic partners), and both have pleasing voices.
Alice McGlave is a treat as Heidi, lending lovely voice to "Way Back to Then" and comic brio that emerges from a calm exterior. Lux Mortenson has high-test energy and great fun as Susan, releasing her insatiable need to perform while letting us see her insecurities, as well as tenderness toward her friends. Bradley Beahen completes the cast as Larry, the almost constantly performing keyboardist. As the show's sole instrumentalist, Beahen makes his keyboard more than enough, and brings spunk to the few spoken lines he is good-naturedly allowed.
Director Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan creates a sense of authenticity to the relationships among the four characters–both as collaborators and as friends. The incidental dance segments, choreographed by Nicki Kromminga Hill, add verve to the proceedings. Cory Skold designed a convincingly lived-in looking Hell's Kitchen apartment that juts out toward the audience, inviting us into their lives. It is decorated with mismatched furniture, knick-knacks, and ephemera from various musicals, including a framed poster for Wicked. Four of Samantha Fromm-Haddow's costumes seem to be what four of these five players would just pull out of their closets, without calling attention to themselves. The exception is Susan, whose fraught effort to fit into the corporate culture of her day job shows.
[title of show] is a very small show in scale and in its running time of 90 minutes (no intermission). However, it is full of heart, loaded up with humor, and pretty darn smart. The cast and crew at Lyric Arts have been able to draw out all the show's good qualities and whip them up into a winning production that demonstrates just why this little show from out of the blue struck a chord with so many people and managed, against all odds, to reach the moon.
[title of show] runs through February 6, 2022, at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, 420 East Main Street, Anoka MN. Tickets from $32.00 - $42.00; seniors (60+) and students with ID: $30.00 - $40.00; For information and tickets call 763-422-1838 or visit lyricarts.org.
Book: Hunter Bell; Music and Lyrics: Jeff Bowen; Director: Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan; Music Director: Bradley Beahen; Scenic Designer: Cory Skold; Assistant Stage Design: Emily Carey; Costume Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Jim Eischen; Sound Design: Julie Zumsteg; Assistant Sound Design: Paul Estby; Props Design: Kat Walker; Choreography: Nickie Kromminga Hill; Intimacy Director: Callie Aho; Stage Manager: Ellen DeYoung; Assistant Stage Manager: Julie Zumsteg
Cast: Bradley Beahen (Larry), Bradley Johnson (Jeff), Alice McGlave (Heidi), Lux Mortenson (Susan), Brendan Nelson Finn (Hunter).