About halfway through [title of show], Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell's musical about making a musical, I began to wonder what all the fuss was about. Yes, self-referential humor can be funny, up to a point. And yes, dropping obscure musical-theater references can often be a witty choice. But for an entire show? Yet just when things begin to seem overly contrived, Heidi (Heidi Blickenstaff) performs the ballad "A Way Back to Then," a poignant tribute to the innocent child within every aspiring theater (or creative) professional. It's a deceptively simple story of sacrifice and aspiration that carries indelible truth, bringing clarity to everything that has already transpired. The show celebrates the noble dream of being "part of it all," but more than that, it exalts the importance of the individual in creating art.
In a spare, fluid production gleefully presented by the Vineyard Theater, [title of show] is a delightful look into the process of creating a musical. With a festival deadline rapidly approaching, Bowen and Bell decided to write a musical about the process of writing a musical, enlisting the help of two friends, Heidi and Susan (Susan Blackwell). They all play themselves (well, versions of themselves) as they collaborate to create an original musical.
As they begin to drum up ideas, casual conversation becomes dialogue, and jealousy becomes fodder for duets. Even the musical director/accompanist Larry (Larry Pressgrove, who plays the lone onstage keyboard) jumps into the action from time to time.
What sets [title of show] apart from other shows about making art is its refusal to push its tongue-in-cheek humor down our throats. Michael Berresse, a well-respected and successful New York actor making his directing debut, keeps the action restrained, preserving the honesty and integrity of the performers and their material. (He also contributes choreography with a light touch that charms without relying on in-your-face shtick.)
Several musical numbers, however, rely on jokes that eventually lose their luster, including "An Original Musical," which starts out strong but trails off haphazardly by the end. (Some one-liners just can't be suspended over an entire song.) For the most part, though, Bell's book is strong and witty, while Bowen, who writes very pleasant—if mostly unmemorable—music, displays an exciting gift for setting words to music. Both the lyrics and the script, in fact, feature writing that is often fresh and unexpected.
All four actors contribute outstanding performances, illustrating the different types of people and personalities that create art. For example, Heidi continues to audition and perform, while Susan has taken a day job (they sing about this discrepancy in their well-done duet, "What Kind of Girl Is She?"). And while Bowen is rather uptight and overly conscious of grammar, Bell is more laid-back, procrastinating with TV and autoeroticism.
All numbers are well executed, and each performer displays impeccable comic timing. Other highlights include "Die Vampire, Die!" (a warning against the "vampires" of self-doubt that paralyze creative people), "Part of It All" (a touching showcase for Bell and Bowen's desire to join the theater community), and "Nine People's Favorite Thing" (the inspirational closing anthem).
Frequent theatergoers (aficionados and die-hards) will find much to appreciate in [title of show], from the amusing voice-mail transitions (featuring many renowned theater performers) to the many references to musicals, both obscure and well known. Others, however, may find the material alienating, especially in "Monkeys and Playbills," a song that highlights Playbills from many now-defunct Broadway shows. While it is an inventive concept, the references are sometimes difficult to catch, even for those in the know.
Still, even audiences who are unfamiliar with the "in-language" of theater will be able to sympathize with the highs and lows of the creative process. As they wonder whether they should "sell out" (changing themselves and their show), Bell and Bowen raise important questions about the commercialization of theater—an industry that remains focused on product. Who can create art? Who are the important voices? And what compromises must one make to be heard?
By placing themselves (and their friends) front and center, Bell and Bowen remind us that real lives are what matters in theater. As referenced in "A Way Back to Then," there are still unaffected children with big dreams at the heart of musical theater, despite commercialism, financial greed, and artistic corruption. And in its own small, sweet, and endearing way, [title of show] encourages us to value the simplicity—and worth—of our own stories.