To love lowbrow humor – specifically, in the world of theater – is to love Jacob Sterling, the deluded D-list theatrical celebrity brought so lovingly to life by the gifted veteran actor David Pittu in What’s That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling. Of course, the lead character is a legend only in his own mind, but while this Atlantic Stage 2 show that may feature a talent-free hack, Smell itself is nothing short of terrific. Pittu is paired with a fellow comic genius, Peter Bartlett, who plays Leonard Swagg. Swagg is the host of “Composers and Lyricists of Tomorrow” (CLOT), which one imagines is a very seldom-seen show dedicated to the die-hard troubadours of the stage. But Sterling is essentially talent-challenged; like many locals, he lives for the theater, but has very little to contribute to the art form.
Ultimately, Sterling’s career has been one long case of arrested development. The sycophantic Swagg alternately praises Sterling as both an up-and-comer and also as a has-been, though his act never was and likely never will be, making him the celebrity equivalent of an Oreo cookie without the center filling. Yet Pittu’s performance prevents him Sterling from being a blowhard. His earnestness makes Sterling eminently likeable.
Sterling’s explanations – er, excuses – as to why he never enjoyed a more fruitful life in the limelight hit at the key strength of Smell: its knowing references to the world of musical theater. Sterling refers to the “two international crises” that stalled his career during the 1980s: AIDS and the British invasion of the American musical theater. Lines like these make it clear that Pittu understands its core audience of musical lovers. More importantly, the show’s lead demonstrates the right instinct by approaching the role with sympathy instead of cynicism. The actor – a two-time Tony nominee – modulates his arch sense of humor. Sterling’s life is one of self-delusion: he thinks his emotions are genuine, his ideas are original, and his bad luck is due to external circumstances rather than his own dearth of talent.
Pittu wrote the script and lyrics for Smell, while Randy Redd composed the music for the numbers in this show within a show. The miracle of this duo is that the songs work on two levels. First, they function as a mockery of commercial theater; but they are also substantial show tunes that stand on their own.
Take, for example, Sterling’s senior thesis musical, an adaptation of the Goldie Hawn comedy Private Benjamin, which includes the song “He Died Inside of Me.” Or Mademoiselle Death, a musical re-enactment of the French action thriller La Femme Nikita. These ideas sound silly and implausible, at first, until one realizes that the existence of such film-to-stage productions as Legally Blonde, The Wedding Singer and the forthcoming 9 to 5musical are more topical than implausible. Additionally, these songs are catchy and irreverent enough to blend right into what can currently be heard in theaters both on and off the Great White Way.
Similarly, Sterling composes a musical called Real Tough Cookie in tribute to pop star Pat Benatar, following a template set on the Great White Way by All Shook Up, Good Vibrations, Mamma Mia and the upcoming Rock of Ages, a musical devoted in part to…Pat Benatar. This is what makes Smell so subversive: Pittu takes seemingly innocuous material and holds it up as a mirror to real life and exposes a lot of the clichés and hypocrisy that currently exist onstage.
Co-directors Pittu and Neil Pepe (artistic director of the Atlantic Theatre Company) do a wonderful job moving Smell along; it ends long before anyone has a chance to want it to do so. Pittu’s fellow cast members play a large role in this enjoyable distraction. Bartlett is outstanding as the overly ebullient talk show host, played with more than a nodding wink to James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio. Then, close to the show’s end, a trio of young performers join the cast to sing an extended medley from Sterling’s upcoming Broadway debut, the fictitious Shopping Out Loud: Brandon Goodman, Matt Schock and Heléne Yorke, all of whom acquit themselves quite well.
It is rare to find a show that blends old-time heart with new-school skepticism the way that Smell does. Talented as the show’s fictitious star may or may not be, it is a testament that it is spirit which keeps the stage alive.