A Review of a Musical about Two Guys Writing a Musical….

One of the things that’s rare on the stage is a truly original musical; that is, a musical that isn’t derived from some previous source material, such as a book, movie, play, or song catalog. If you look on Broadway, a truly original musical is something rare indeed. This review is about an original musical.

Back in 2004, two friends—Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, were trying to come up with an idea to submit to the New York Musical Theatre Festival in three weeks. The idea that they hit upon was something remarkably meta: a show about two guys writing a show about two guys writing a show. In other words: they wrote about themselves writing the show… and the result was “[title of show]”, which is having its premiere Los Angeles production at the Celebration Theatre in West Hollywood.

The show really does tell the story of its creation. Two Broadway-geeks (Jeff and Hunter) want to submit to the festival, and realize that their playful conversations are more fun than any fictional ideas, so they run with it. They bring in two of their theatre friends (Heidi and Susan) and an orchestrator (Larry), and off they go. The result is a curious mishmash that illustrates the creative and development process from the birth of an idea to the point it reaches Broadway, and along the way numerous popular culture, and even more Broadway show references are thrown around just for fun. Once presented at the festival, the show creation didn’t end, for it was updated to reflect its subsequent life Off-Broadway, on the Internet, finally getting to the point where it was mounted on Broadway (and thus, it contains some songs not on the Off-Broadway Cast Album).

As with any meta-discussion, the show plays on a number of levels. The basic story of its creation is entertaining, although there could have been some tightening in the post-Off-Broadway portions, where it got a bit dark and slow. The continuous barrage of obvious and non-obvious references is entertaining to the theatre-geek like me, but probably totally missed by much of the audience. This particular production seemed to emphasize the gay theatre vibe a bit more—perhaps this is because one of the missions of the Celebration theatre is to present LBGT works, and Jeff and Hunter are gay. Of course, if you’re a straight theatre geek you squirm a bit, especially when they go on about the collection of Playbills and Programs that they have (and yes, I must admit to keeping all my programs as well). The music of the show is quite entertaining and engaging, although only one or two of the songs work well outside of the show: “A Way Back to Then” and “Nine People’s Favorite Thing”. The last song is perhaps the mantra of the show… and perhaps a good mantra for life: “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth favorite thing.”

Production-wise, the show was very strong, with minor weaknesses. I truly liked the actors playing Jeff and Heidi, Michael Joyce (understudy for Jeff, who was on last night) and Carey Petersæ. Both were great singers (I particularly enjoyed Peters’ voice—what is it about actresses named Peters….) and great actors. It was just a joy to watch their faces and their enjoyment of doing this piece. Jennifer R. Blakeæ was great as Susan in the acting department, although her voice needed to be just a bit stronger to compete with Peters’ voice. Micah McCain, as Hunter, was good in the acting and singing, but again the problem for me was vocal: there was just something in his voice that didn’t work right. Lastly, in the backround was Gregory Nabours as Larry. He was great on the keyboard, as well as being quite funny in his few lines. Most importantly, this cast was having fun with the show—this is something I always enjoy seeing and find infectious. If the performances come from the heart and the internal joy and are not just rote, everyone wins. That happens in this production.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Technical-wise, what is there to say. The set is four chairs and a keyboard, which doesn’t leave much for the prop designer (Michael O’Hara) or the scenic designer (Kurt Boetcher) to do. Similarly, the clothing is current-day street clothes, meaning no extensive sewing for Raffel Sarabia, the costume designer (although based on the songs, I expected Heidi’s looks to be a bit *more*. The lighting, designed by Matthew Brian Denman, worked well. The sound design by Veronica J. Lancaster was primarily amplification of the music and some sound effects; I found myself wishing either the keyboard was less-amplified or the music was more-amplified so that I could hear the words clearer (although admittedly this could be because the sound was tuned for the front, as opposed to the sides where we sat).

The production was directed by Michael A. Shepperd (assisted by Nik Roybal), who did a great job of bringing out the joy of this show and translating the page into appropriate movement and expression. The movement and choreography was by Ameenah Kaplan (assisted by Jeffrey Landman, who normally plays Jeff, as Dance Captain). The music director was Gregory Nabours. Mercedes Clanton was the Production Stage Manager. “[title of show]” was produced by Tijuana Gray and Jim Halloran, and Erick Long (Associate).

[title of show]” continues at the Celebration Theatre through the end of August (August 29), and is well worth seeing. Tickets are available through the theatre’s ticketing site as well as through Goldstar, although note that (a) Goldstar is currently sold out, and (b) the Goldstar seats are on the side.

Dining Notes: Dinner before the show was at one of our favorites: Zeke’s Smokehouse, which is about a block away at LaBrea and Santa Monica. This is a wonderful BBQ restaurant; highly recommended. If you don’t want to hassle the street parking, eat at Zeke’s and just park at the center—parking totals around $7.50. Dessert was at IcePan at the same center, an interesting ice-cream place where you pick the dairy (non-fat, low-fat, whole milk or soy milk), the flavor, the mix-in, and they make the ice cream in front of you. No pre-frozen ice cream; they make it on an ice-pan. Quite light and quite good.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. We have one more show this weekend: “Speech and Debate” at the Secret Rose Theatre on Saturday, August 7. August 15 brings the August “Meeting of Minds”, which will be the last production at the Steve Allen Theatre and features Adam Smith (Ian Buchanan), Chacko Vadaketh (Ghandi), T. B. Specified (Margaret Sanger), and Jack Maxwell (Steve Allen). August 21 brings the last 81 Series production: “Side Man” at REP East. Currently, the only show ticketed in September is “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4. Pending ticketing is “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 11-October 24, Hottix on sale August 17; potential dates: 9/19, 9/26, or 10/10), The Glass Menagerie at the Mark Taper Forum (September 1-October 17, Hottix on sale August 11; potential date: 9/11), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (September 17-October 16; potential date 10/2). It is unknown if there will be a September “Meeting of Minds”, and if so, when and where. The only show currently ticketed in October is “Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 30, but I’m sure some interesting productions will pop up. They always do.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.