In general, I'm not a fan of musicals. It's not that I mind it when good acting and dialogue are interrupted periodically to allow the players to burst into song. I'm not even necessarily against over-the-top dance numbers that come out of nowhere. No, the biggest problem I have with most musicals is that their stories and subjects tend to be incredibly dumb.
Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, the composer and writer behind [title of show], now through June 26, 2011 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, appear to share my pain, although they obviously love the genre a good deal more than I. That's probably why they chose to express their frustrations with this archaic medium by creating a musical about it.
You'd have to be a serious sourpuss not to enjoy the current TheatreWorks production of their effort, which is about two guys with a dream of writing a musical that makes it to Broadway. Based on their real experiences in 2004, when Bowen and Bell entered a musical-theatre festival by submitting a musical about two guys writing a new work for a musical-theatre festival, [title of show] is self-referential by design. Its frequent jokes about masturbation are not an accident.
Director Meredith McDonough gets good performances and energy from the fine company of four actors and lone on-stage keyboardist (William Liberatore). Surrounded by an efficient and believable set from Kate Edmunds, the actors fill the stage with their convincing characterizations and strong voices for almost two hours without an intermission.
Leading the small team is Hunter (Jamison Stern), who's modeled after the real Hunter Bell, who played himself in the musical's first production. Bell's on-stage Hunter is deliberately pathetic. He'd write the play that's going to get him to the top if only he wasn't so darned busy; when we meet him, he's psyching himself up for a new season of The Bachelor. For the character Hunter, self-deprecation is an art form, which is why the notion of writing a play about writing a play that lampoons the tropes of musical theater must not have struck Bell as such a stretch.
Hunter's partner in navel gazing is Jeff (Ian Leonard), who's based on Jeff Bowen. If Hunter is the trickster whose inspiration comes in bursts, Jeff is the nose-to-the-grindstone type, a product, we suppose, of his need to craft sentences that are not only smart and funny but also fit within the constraints of his melodies. As a result, he's a better writer (technically, anyway) than Hunter, which we know because he's constantly correcting his friend's grammar. It must be true since Hunter wrote it into his script, right?
Also based on real people are Susan (Laura Jordan) and Heidi (Farah Alvin). Susan has a dry-as-dust sense of humor that sneaks up on you; I loved the way Jordan brought her barefoot character quietly to life, as well as her willingness to sing off key to prove Susan's insecurities about the quality of her voice. Heidi has no such struggles in the vocal department. In fact, several songs are written just for her, and Alvin more than delivers on this plot device. More important, though, than Susan's wit and Heidi's pipes is their role as muses for Hunter and Jeff. Yes, the two women enliven [title of show] whenever they step on stage, but you get the strong sense that without them Bowen and Bell might never, as they sing, have filled so many Playbills with their gay skills. Things are simply more interesting with collaborators.
If [title of show] has a dead zone, it occurs roughly two-thirds of the way through, when the men begin to struggle with the success of their play moving from the Vineyard Theatre off Broadway to the Lyceum on the Great White Way. Yawn. Now the story and lyrics go all dreary on us, while the redemption at the end feels as fake as the stuff they've spent all evening parodying. As it turns out, this part of the musical was written for Broadway. I definitely enjoyed [title of show], but I wish I could have seen the version that played the Vineyard.
The TheatreWorks production of [title of show] runs through June 26, 2011 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets and information visit theatreworks.org.
Photos: Mark Kitaoka.