Sunday, July 16, 2006

"Your Arm's Too Short to Write this Show"

"[title of show]" - Vineyard Theatre, July 15, 2006

The Vineyard Theatre has brought back this production which ran earlier this year. I guess it's too soon to call it a "revival."

The premise for [tos]: Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen decide to submit a new musical to a theatre festival. The hitch is they don't have anything underway, let alone an idea for a show and only 3 weeks to complete it. Jeff suggests that they treat it as a writing exercise and submit whatever they have at the end of the 3 weeks. Quickly, the idea arises to make the show about writing the show.
Jeff: "What if what we say could be said in a lyric? What if what we say could be part of a song?"
Hunter: "Music in a musical, how could we go wrong?"
As the ideas grow, so does the cast. They bring in their friend Susan, who is ..."no longer auditioning since I started a new role of corporate whore, appearing as the office manager." She adds "[and I'm] a handsome woman - a tough sell [as an actor]." She is followed by Jeff's friend, Heidi; cute, perky, very "broadway." Susan and Heidi foster a semi-competitive, semi-envious relationship together - "She's so great! What kind of girl is she? Does she like me?" - all in great fun.

All along the way, Messr's Bell and Bowen pack their script with inside jokes about the New York theatre community. They go on to talk about the nobility of an original musical, rather than one based on a book or a movie, then listing the endless number of musicals based on books or movies (or both: "Lestat," "Mary Poppins"). Another great concept they use is a series of voice messages on Hunter's answering machine from Broadway actresses. They've called each one to ask them to be in their show. One by one, they decline. Several, however, have their own quirks revealed during their message.
Marin Mazzie: lets out a terrific belch during her message
Victoria Clark: rambles on and on and is eventually cut off by the machine
Amy Spanger: leaves a very polite message, then continues to talk not knowing that she hasn't ended the call. "I can't believe they gave out my fucking home number! Who are these people? this still on?"
The great lines abound as well. One of my favorites is a reference to the musical "Ruthless." Hunter and Jeff see no problem with criticizing a show they've never seen - priceless! Another follows a scene Hunter has written where the cast are flying in a dream sequence. Jeff doesn't like it at all and Hunter says the idea "...was like a drag queen - fabulous late at night, but in the light of day, not so much."

As you might guess, the script is completed and the festival accepts the submission, followed by a run at the Vineyard Theatre.

Hunter Bell, a little doughy but cute, has an endearing self-conciousness to his performance that I think only works because he's playing himself. When he and Jeff are faced with feedback from their reading for professional producers his "actor" side kicks in. In these scenes, he is intense and believable, but it seems to undercut his lighter and funnier moments a little. In "Original Musical" Jeff faces the writer's blank page, embodied by Hunter in a blank notebook page sandwich board. Jeff says at one point in the number that he can't tell if Hunter is trying to channel Randy Newman or Ben Vereen - just hilarious!!

Jeff Bowen, also very cute, gives a more focused and direct performance. He takes a little longer to buy in to the possibility that what they're writing will work, remaining a stabilizing force in the cast. In "Playbills and Monkeys," he sorts through his collection of playbills looking for inspiration from some very obscure shows from the musical version of "Carrie" to "Oh, Kaye." The interplay of titles into the lyrics of the song

Susan Blackwell, the "handsome woman," brings a neurotic sophistication to her role. At times quirky, then bitchy, then insecure, or all three at the same time. She presents first as a typical, jaded NY actress (see her introduction above), but reveals true warmth as the group bonds into something like a family. Her "Die Vampire, Die" number exposes all the fears and insecurities every performer or artist experiences in their quest for success.

Heidi Blickenstaff rounds out the quartet nicely. A bright presence and excellent voice provide a balance to some of the quirks in the rest of the cast. She provides one of the dramatic moments in the show when offered a role in a production at Goodspeed while Hunter and Jeff are trying to get a commercial production of the show.

As director and choreographer, Michael Berresse has done a beautiful job with this unusual piece. His clear eye keeps the show sensitive, when it could easily slip into meaningless farce. He doesn't shy away from the self-awareness of the writing and premise, using it instead to enhance the show.

It's rather a shame that this production is scheduled for a limited run through Sept 10. I could easily see this intimate and thoroughly entertaining show in a successful open run at a facility like New World Stages.

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