The Show Within a Show Within a Show...

title_of_showThe first new musical of the Broadway season isn’t exactly brand new. In fact, [title of show] has been on the scene in New York, off and on, over the past four years. It originated in 2004 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), where new musicals are presented for limited runs; as a result of achieving a good response there, [title of show] had a successful off-Broadway run in 2006 at the Vineyard Theatre. Last year, the authors, who also are the show’s stars, created a successful series of web episodes, which can be viewed on You Tube and on the musical’s own website, called “The [title of show] Show.” Over the years, the small show, which features just four actors, their keyboard accompanist, and no real set to speak of, has built up its share of avid fans, and talk of a Broadway transfer has built. Finally, the creators and their fans have been rewarded with the arrival of [title of show] on Broadway.

I saw the musical late in its off-Broadway run and enjoyed it, finding it clever, sweet, often funny, and quite likable. But it was a slight piece, with occasional lulls, and it went a bit off track over the last third of the show, so I couldn’t quite match the enthusiasm that the show’s biggest fans had for their beloved [title of show].

Some have also questioned whether such a small show even belongs in a Broadway house. My answer to that is, if the musical entertains and speaks to its audience, I have no problem with the lack of an orchestra, sets, or costumes. And, fortunately, [title of show] has actually improved since its off-Broadway run, resulting in a winning and satisfying evening. Some real dramatic tension has been added to the show, helping to make the concluding moments quite touching. More on that later.

[title of show] is a show about writing this show about writing this show, etc. Follow? The writers have three weeks to write a musical to submit to the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and [title of show] presents Hunter and Jeff, the creators (Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen), playing themselves and portraying, perhaps, how they did write the show we are now watching. It’s a clever concept, and, while there are some uneven moments, it often works. They are joined in the endeavor by Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, actresses who are also their friends and play, naturally, Susan and Heidi in the show. Accompanist Larry Pressgrove is also onstage and part of the story. The line between fact and fiction is blurred, and my guess is that the show features parts of both. We watch as Hunter and Jeff develop and write this musical and submit it to NYMF, then see their work lead, first, to the NFMF run, then to its off-Broadway engagement and, ultimately, come to Broadway. As is the case with a number of recent musical comedies, it is frequently self-referential. It is also, particularly in its first half, very much an insider show, with lots of references to musical theater and even an entire number devoted to flop musicals. Much of it is quite funny (although I didn’t laugh as much as some of the enthusiasts in the audience), and the songs, written by Bowen, are tuneful and appealing. The show’s title comes from the line on the NYMF submission form where they are asked to write out the “[title of show].” Interspersed throughout the evening are a series of answering machine messages left for the authors by famous Broadway stars (Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole, and Victoria Clark, to name a few) in which the divas thank the writers for thinking of them for their new show but, in every case, decline their request to be part of it in a witty and amusing fashion.

Since the off-Broadway run, Bell, who wrote the book, and Bowen have added some material about the off-Broadway run, the waiting period following that, the videos, the possibility of a Broadway run and, finally, the ultimate lead up to the Broadway opening. Here is where the show has most improved. The issue of artistic integrity is explored as the creators deal with how much they should or should not change the show for a Broadway engagement. The same concepts were explored in the off-Broadway production, but not as successfully. This mostly new section, while different in tone from what we see earlier in the show, adds an element of real drama that is much needed, and it is this element that really makes the show work for me. It makes the final two numbers - Blickenstaff’s “A Way Back to Then” and the full company’s “Nine People’s Favorite Thing” - quite moving, and the audience responded to both with loud, enthusiastic applause. By evening’s end, I had found something sweet and quite touching about the journey of the authors/performers, and the realization of their dreams of a Broadway run was even inspirational.

Part of the charm of [title of show] comes from the appealing cast. Bell gives an enormously winning performance that is goofily endearing. He has a strong personality and stage presence. Bowen’s role is less showy, but he is likable and a down-to-earth counterpoint to Bell. Blackwell is quirky and edgy in her comic role, while Blickenstaff brings a big voice and attractive personality to her performance. Credit should also go to director Michael Berresse, who may be more known for his performances in such shows as Chicago, Kiss Me Kate, and Light in the Piazza. He has staged this musical with a crisp efficiency that is particularly effective in enhancing the dramatic tension and, eventually, the emotional payoff in the show’s final scenes.

Will Broadway audiences, beyond the avid [title of show] fans, pay to see such a small show with, as the characters point out, just “four chairs and a keyboard?” Will this musical prove to be a bit too self-indulgent and too much an insider piece for the broader audience? I hope people will give it a chance. I think most can get past these possible obstacles and find some charming performers telling a more universal story about the aspirations of, as the authors refer to themselves in one song, “Two Nobodies in New York,” and their quest and journey to achieve their dreams. Along the way, there are some fine songs and some real laughs; and, in the end, it is sweet and touching, which is ultimately why I found the Broadway version of [title of show] so appealing. - James Miller

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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