At the heart of most satire is a begrudging affection for the object of its pointed wit. So it is with Austentatious, a musical set within the insular world of community theater. The show's creators pay tribute to the egotism, misguided instincts, adorable amateurishness, and, yes, the abiding passion for theater that characterizes nonprofessional productions. That the show is able to poke gentle fun at the ridiculous while also being sublimely funny speaks to the considerable abilities of its cast and creative team. The Central Riverdale Amateur Players are set to work on their first show since John, the group's driving force, left for a flashy directing gig at a regional theater. The resulting power vacuum has left pretentious, pathetic Dominic helming domineering dancer Emily's unorthodox version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Emily's re-imagining, which features dance-offs, exotic locales, and oversimplified dialogue, has been aptly rechristened Austentatious.
Inexplicably, only four people show up for the one day of auditions, with a fifth (David) there to read with his actress girlfriend (Lauren). Emily claims the role of Elizabeth Bennett, for which she competes against petite blonde Lauren and Jessica, the group's regular/eternal supporting role player. (All of the actresses are dreadful, but Emily's intimate relationship with Dominic gets her the part.)
Bookish David's understated line reading and romantic soul win him the role of Mr. Darcy, much to his surprise, and the ire of Lauren, who is cast in the smaller role of Elizabeth's younger sister Lydia. Jessica's choice of monologue—that of an elderly woman—again relegates her to the sidelines, as elder sister Jane. Stoner twentysomething Blake, coerced into auditioning by his social worker, gets cast as Mr. Bingley simply because "there aren't enough guys."
Overseeing this group is Sam, the no-nonsense stage manager who gave up on acting after a scarring experience in a college production. She comes to rehearsals early, leaves late, and makes sure that, despite the writer/director clashes over script changes and clog dances, the ship sails smoothly into port (i.e., opening night). But even Sam has difficulty keeping up with the increasingly outlandish revisions to Austen's book, particularly because of her devotion to the source material. (Hilariously, Dominic considers that to be "the movie," which we presume to be the most recent version, starring Keira Knightley.)
In its depiction of community theater antics, the script gets two things wrong that would greatly help in establishing reality at the top of the show. As the actors wait for auditions to start, we do not get a strong sense of who knows whom. Community theater groups are traditionally tight-knit, and a relatively small circle of people goes out for shows on a regular basis. Auditions are all about friends from previous productions reuniting, evaluating strangers on their abilities based on their looks and preparedness, and gossiping about their rivals.
Playing into this would seem to be an ideal way for the writers to establish exposition, character, and past history in a very economical way. It could be done as part of the interjectory recitative in the show's opening number, "Audition."
The other detail that did not ring true was the small number of auditioners. While it makes sense to keep the cast small in order to develop each character's arc—which is done very successfully throughout the show—an explanation of the poor turnout is needed. There could be a clearer line about people turning their back on the group after John left. (This is hinted at in the second scene, which is too late.) Who has ever seen an audition with a turnout of fewer than a dozen people?
Fortunately, the script is propped up by bouncy songs, unexpected and funny lyrics, and a game, talented cast. Former Avenue Q puppeteer Stephanie D'Abruzzo (Sam) is the most believably unglamorous actress playing a stage manager I've ever seen, and the song "I Manage" seems to have been tailor-made to showcase her strong, emotion-soaked voice. The other standout is Stephen Bel Davies, whose dithering Dominic gets some of the production's funniest lines. (Presented with a tap-dancing number in a scene, he recalls that the original version was "more mouthal and not so leggy-tappy.")
All of the actors have wholeheartedly embraced their characters' talent levels and shrunk or outsized their personalities to match. Their conviction is so strong that it's almost a shock to read their professional bios in the program!
For the show's ambitious players, their goals range from a good run to fame and fortune on a larger scale. The goals for the production's creators are less clear. This is a diverting, crowd-pleasing piece that would do well in limited runs at small houses in big cities with a theater culture. Despite its similarities to Noises Off!, which has run twice on Broadway, it doesn't have the presence to command a large commercial venue. But, to borrow the title of the Act I closing number, perhaps scoring a run at the New York Musical Theater Festival is "the next best thing."