Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond
Theater review:

Deconstructing a musical in '[title of show]'

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

It's one of those why-didn't-I-think-of-that ideas that actually worked.

In 2004, two friends in New York — Baltimore-born Jeff Bowen and Alabama native Hunter Bell — spotted an announcement for a festival to showcase new musicals. They decided to give it a try, but, with nothing down on paper and only three weeks to meet the application deadline, what could they possibly create?

Hey, why not write a musical about two guys trying to write a musical about two guys trying to write a musical? Voila.

That's more or less the reality behind the little gem Bowen and Bell crafted and called "[title of show]" — named, of course, for the first line on the festival entry form.

This whole gimmick could have turned into a silly, indulgent inside joke, but it became something clever, even irresistible, as Fells Point Corner Theatre's likable production reconfirms.

"[title of show]," which made it to Broadway in 2008 after an Off-Broadway run a couple years earlier, is at once a love letter to musical theater and a multilayered deconstruction of musical theater.

It sends up just about every convention, including songs that "ask significant questions" and have a final chorus that builds slowly in volume. There's even room along the way for a dig at precious trends in the way actors pen their thank-you-filled program bios.

All of this might be a tough slog for those immune to the whole glorious genre of musicals — and the sub-genre of musical flops, the kind immortalized in posters on the walls of Joe Allen Restaurant, a Manhattan institution for stage folk.

The references come fast and furious in Bell's book, which brims with crackling dialogue, and in the wordplay-fueled lyrics Bowen penned for his catchy and often very droll songs.

Even if you miss some of the allusions (I had forgotten there was a "Shogun: The Musical," and I'm embarrassed to admit I remember the mime duo Shields and Yarnell), the kinetic plot generates plenty of other funny stuff at every turn.

The only pre-existing condition you need is a camp humor gene tucked away somewhere in your DNA. That should make it easy to warm up to the two gay buddies at the heart of the work, who are prone to waste time watching minor TV shows or internet porn in their respective New York apartments before the festival prospect arises in tantalizing fashion.

"[title of show]" droops a little toward the end, when things take a more serious turn. But even then, flashes of humor pop up to keep the piece percolating, as in a number called "Awkward Photo Shoot" that skewers the inevitable moment when egos collide.

Ultimately, just about everything clicks into place to make for a knowing musical that celebrates in 90 minutes the brave-crazy act of inventing for the stage, daring to dream of your name in lights.

Musicals tend not to be the easiest undertakings for community theaters, so the overall snap of the Fells Point Corner Theatre staging, astutely directed by Kristen Cooley, is all the more notable.

In the role of songwriter Jeff, as big a fame-dreamer as he is a nerdy stickler for grammar, Owen O'Leary gives a winning performance. The idea-spinning Hunter, who eventually gets just a little carried away with the whole business, is portrayed with admirable fire and nuance by Izaak Michael.

Lauren Stuart does sparkling work as Heidi, who, in between trying out for minor parts in Broadway shows, agrees to join the guys in the creative process.

Also entering the cause is Susan, who keeps one foot solidly planted in an office job, but can't resist getting in on what just might be a hit show. Casey Dutt vividly captures the character's part-brassy, part-insecure nature.

All of the actors tackle the vocal demands respectably, compensating for occasional upper-register strain or pitch slippage with vibrant phrasing. They throw themselves just as dynamically into Tom Wyatt's cute choreography.

The score calls only for piano accompaniment and a player who gamely gets into the action at key moments. The show's music director, Mandee Ferrier Roberts, handles the duties at most performances. Homeretta Ayala took on the assignment the weekend I attended and did so with aplomb.

Nicely lit by Thomas P. Gardner, Bush Greenbeck's set provides just enough framework to give this flight of fact and fancy an extra lift.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"[title of show]" runs through May 28 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St. Tickets are $15 to $20 (pay what you can on May 18). Go to fpct.org.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
79°